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Plastics treaty should focus on growing global health concerns

A man rummages through a heap of trash to seek daily bread comprising of used papers, plastic bottles and metals along the banks of river Nairobi near Majengo slums in Nairobi on May 17, 2022. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

In March 2022, the UN Assembly made a historic resolution to end plastic pollution and forge an international, legally binding agreement to combat plastic pollution.

This was a critical decision, as the treaty could curb and reduce the production of toxic chemicals. But while the resolution calls for a plastics treaty that ends all forms of plastic pollution, it does not mention toxic chemicals, even though plastics are made from chemicals.

As United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) prepares for ad hoc open-ended working group to prepare for intergovernmental negotiating committee on the plastic treaty in Senegal from May 30, various environmental organisations have raised concerns to have a global treaty that addresses human health and climate threat from plastics throughout their lifecycle. Plastic pollution poses not only a threat to the environment but also to human health. According to research, over 10,000 different chemicals are used in plastics.

Plastic pollution is visible and well documented, but we often overlook the invisible chemicals in plastic that pose hazards to people and the environment. Some chemicals in plastics are known carcinogens that can cause prostate and breast cancer.

Others are endocrine disruptors, meaning that they disturb the hormonal system, which is the system that balances everything in our bodies. Disturbing that system can result in an increased risk of infertility, obesity, and other serious conditions. Many of these plastics release hazardous chemicals that can be transferred from mother to child during pregnancy, threatening the health of future generations.

The International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) has conducted several studies to identify items with harmful chemicals. Shockingly, toxic chemicals were found in baby-bottles, hair accessories, toys, clothes, plastic litter, on beaches and in recycled plastics. A recent study by IPEN and Arnika found high levels of banned toxic chemicals in plastic toys and utensils in 11 African countries, Kenya included.

Chemicals are released during plastics production, usage, and end of life. Through international trade, products and materials move with very little control of their chemical composition. Toxic plastic waste is exported from high income countries to low income countries that have limited resources to monitor and protect the public from harmful substances, leading to an unequal burden on people in low income countries and indigenous peoples.

Plastic litter can travel the oceans over large distances from one country to another with currents and winds, and tiny plastic particles called microplastics can absorb chemicals from the environment and create toxic exposures wherever the particles go. An increasing number of chemicals are therefore found in the most remote corners of our world, affecting all environments. Many of these chemicals are persistent; they will be around for decades or longer, leaving a toxic legacy for future generations. Because plastics are made of chemicals, we cannot address the plastics crisis without addressing how chemicals in plastics are creating a health crisis.

To end this crisis, we must end the use of toxic chemicals in plastics. When talking about plastic solutions we must talk about chemicals and health impacts of all plastic products, whether virgin or recycled. On May 30, when the world reconvenes in Senegal to talk about the plastics treaty, a global effort to end plastic pollution must be initiated. The treaty presents an opportunity to protect human health and the environment from the long-lasting impacts of toxic chemicals used in plastics. For the treaty to be effective, the secretariat must have scientific evidence of the harm caused by plastics, including on human health, the role of chemicals used in plastics and their impacts on the lifecycle of plastics.

The treaty must address the issue of chemicals and health and the need to stop producing plastics that harm human health and the environment. The Dakar negotiations should be open and inclusive to achieve a full detoxification of plastic materials so that toxic chemicals in plastics do not contaminate our food, water bodies, soil and air. The plastics treaty needs to be a global health treaty for recycling contaminated plastics.
Ms Kombo is CEJAD Kenya and IPEN Africa Communications Officer