Recent studies show that fertility in both males and females has decreased over the past few decades. The decline has partly been linked to the effects of the ever-present toxic chemicals in plastics. Plastics contain and leach hazardous chemicals, including endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that threaten human health.
In most African countries, Kenya included, majority of people use plastic products daily. Most used plastic items include plates, cups, toys, shampoo bottles, food packaging containers and office equipment.
Unknown to many, some of these products contain harmful chemicals and additives that negatively impact their health and environment. It is hard to control the exposure to the additives it occurs during the entire life span of plastic products, from the manufacturing process to consumer contact, recycling, to waste management and disposal. This makes it even harder for circular economy to thrive for it turns toxic if the plastics recycled contain toxic chemicals.
Many of these additives are known to interfere with hormone functioning, thus are commonly referred to as EDCs. According to a publication by Endocrine Society on plastics, EDCs and health, the impacts of these chemicals are deadly and life-threatening. They include cancers, diabetes, fatty liver, metabolic disorders, alterations to both male and female reproductive development, infertility and neurological impacts.
According to research, young women today at 25 are less fertile than their grandmothers were when they were 45. The number of sperms per millilitre of semen has dropped more than 50 per cent among men in western countries in just under 40 years.
What toxic chemicals are there in plastics?
Some of the known chemicals that leach from plastic and threaten health include Phthalates, PFAS, flame retardants, dioxins and UV-stabilisers.
A study by ARNIKA and IPEN on hazardous chemicals found in plastic products in Africa shows that children’s toys, hair accessories, office supplies and kitchen utensils found on the African market are affected by unregulated recycling of e-waste plastics that carry brominated flame retardants.
Children spend a significant amount of time having hand-to-mouth contact and playing with toys, thus making the most impacted by contaminated toys. Regulations are needed to ensure that some of the additives are not used.
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Polybrominated diphenyl ethers are mixed into plastic polymers that are not chemically bound to the material and therefore leach into the environment. They have been found in breast milk and their exposures are associated with adverse health effects, including pregnancy complications and neurological disorders in childhood including poorer concentration, attention, and reduced IQ.
Phthalates are the chemicals that give plastic products strength and flexibility and have been shown to interfere with the endocrine system in both men and women. Hundreds of products contain these compounds, including shampoo bottles, raincoats, flooring and garden hoses.
As the production of plastic is expected to increase to 1.1 billion tonnes by 2050, many potentially harmful chemicals will continue to be used during the production, either as building blocks of the plastic material itself or as additives to provide certain properties such as colour or flexibility. This trend will continue to impact people’s health and lead to more harm.
Although waste recycling is a good environmental practice, it should not apply to waste containing toxic chemicals and additives. The burden of plastic menace need to be addressed from the source as many African countries have turned into dumping sites of harmful plastics.
Governments need to formulate policies to reduce EDCs from plastic and reduce exposures from plastic recycling, and plastic waste. The Stockholm Convention needs to formulate effective ways of, identifying and controlling the most hazardous chemical substances on the planet.
EDCs exposure is not only a global problem today; it poses a serious threat to future generations as it can cause DNA modifications that would have repercussions across multiple generations.
Ms Kombo is CEJAD Kenya and IPEN Africa Communications Advisor