By Katherine Ph.D.

Head of BioTechnology 

When we heard ancient Egyptians use lead in their makeup to achieve their dramatic smoky eyes, ancient Romans use white lead so that they look sickly pale, or Victorian ladies bath in arsenic to make their skin white, we were horrified. How could they sacrifice their life for the sake of beauty? Some might argue- that they didn’t know the dangers of those killer cosmetics. However, they could feel the effect of them after a while, when their skin was corroded, when they felt addicted to arsenic. In fact, many at that time knew that arsenic, for example, is toxic, as it was frequently used as poison for murder. The reason lies in nature of human looking for shortcuts and comfort. If you can use a cream that whiten your skin within a few days, why would you need to avoid sun and wearing protective layer of clothing for months?

So how does this relate to plastic? Plastic is everywhere. We love it. It is tough to live a life without it. Imagine early in the morning, you are rushing to school or work. You don’t have breakfast yet. Then on your way, you see a peddler selling banana fritters. You stop and buy it. The peddler will pass the fritters in a plastic bag, sometimes he put a layer of paper inside, sometimes not. You take that plastic bag and eat the fritters. After that, you just need to throw away that plastic. Then your hands are free. After eating, you get thirsty. You then buy bottle water, drink it and throw the bottle away. So easy and practical. Why do you need to bring your own water bottle, or bring your own container? They are heavy and you need to wash them after you use it.

However, even if we are not aware, increasing literature has proven that plastic is damaging to human health in many ways. Several compounds belonging to phthalates such as diethyl phthalate (DEP) and diethyl hexyl phthalate (DEHP) were detected from plastic packaging made of PET and HDPE [1,2]. Long-term exposure to these chemicals could lead to several adverse health effects, including breast cancer, prostate cancer, thyroid gland disorders, infertility, obesity, liver damage and many more [1]. Bisphenol A (BPA), a key material in making plastic bottles is linked to endocrine disruption. Styrene, monomers from Styrofoam is also considered potential human carcinogen.

These compounds enter human body via several routes. First, they could leach directly from the plastic packaging into our drinks and foods. The leaching rate is especially higher at high temperature and for lower pH products and fatty products such as soda, vinegar, acidic fruit juices, poultry, cooking oils and cream –based dairy products [3]. Second, which is more pervasive, is via contamination of plastic in the environment. Only 9% of plastic we use are recycled while majority of the plastic is accumulated in landfills and natural environment. [4] The plastic is so durable that they don’t completely disintegrate. They just break down into tiny plastic particles which are then leach into water source, ingested by farm animals, fishes, shellfish and other sea creatures. This is how the plastic particles come back to our dinner plates.

So it is all clear now that while plastics are convenient, they have long-lasting adverse impact, not only to environment but also to our health. While we are struggling to replace these plastics, which as versatile, but more environmentally friendly, what can we then do to at least minimize the harm? First, we should avoid using single-use plastic wrap and cutleries. Use only metal, glass or ceramics containers. Avoid heating food or storing fatty foods in plastic containers. Finally, if we have no choice but to use it, discard the plastic container in the correct bin so that they are properly managed.

[1] N. Rastkari, et al. Releasing of Phthalates into Packed Acidic Liquids, Food Technol. Biotechnol. 55 (4) : 562-569 (2017)
[2] S. Keresztes, et al. Study on the leaching of phthalates from polyethylene terephthalate bottles into mineral water, Sci Total Environ. 458-560: 451-458 (2013)
[3] S.E. Serrano, et al. Phthalates and diet: a review of the food monitoring and epidemiology data, Environmental Health 13:43 (2014)
[4] https://www.unenvironment.org/interactive/beat-plastic-pollution/