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The production, use and recycling of plastics are not only the source of significant pollution of our environment, but they also have consequences for our health. Today the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) releases the primer ‘Turning the Plastic Tide’, aiming to shine a light on a rarely explored perspective to plastic pollution: the undeniable link between the synthetic chemicals used in plastics and their effects on our health.

‘Turning the Plastic Tide’ introduces readers to health concerns over our exposure to the chemicals coming at play throughout the entire lifecycle of plastics. It unwraps the grave challenge that the chemicals constituents involved at every stage – monomers, additives – pose to achieve a clean and healthy circular economy. The report also highlights the need for a broad definition of plastics that allows one to define the full scale of plastic contamination, including the all-pervasive problem of microplastics.

Exposure to chemicals used in plastics, like flame retardants, endocrine disruptors, PFAS, bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates has been associated with a myriad of potential health impacts. For example, health concerns related to endocrine disruptors include reproductive disorders, development dysfunction, behavioural disorders, thyroid problems, low birth weight, diabetes and obesity, asthma, breast and prostate cancers.

Stronger regulations for Europe-wide solutions and better health

HEAL’s new primer is being launched at a crucial time for the delivery of Europe’s promises towards bettering future European legislation on chemicals and reaching the zero-pollution ambition. The release of the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, a key component of the European Green Deal, is expected in the autumn of 2020. If well crafted, this could be the most transformative chemical policy initiative at European level since REACH was launched in 2006.

Solving the environmental pollution and health impacts of plastics is only possible by acknowledging that the problems of plastics are inextricably linked to chemical safety. Effective protection of health and environment will require stronger, more efficient and protective EU-wide regulations on chemicals and articles in which they are used. And those regulations need to encompass the entire lifecycle of plastics if they are to truly contribute to the transition to a non-toxic circular economy.

Our recommendations for regulators to turn the plastic tide include:

  1. Protect and be consistent
  • No substance of very high concern (SVHC) should ever make its way into consumer products or food.
  • It is high time to crack down on plastics additives.
  • Rather than treating substances one by one, we must start regulating substances in groups. The reality of our exposure to mixtures, which is particularly relevant when addressing plastics, must be taken into account in chemicals assessments and regulations.
  • Regulations on recycled materials should be the same as for virgin materials.
  1. Anticipate and communicate
  • Implement essential EU principles such as the precautionary principle in cases of scientific uncertainties and the polluter-pays principle. Do not let substances that are not proven safe enter the market.
  • Avoid contaminating the future: do not allow recycling of plastics with hazardous additives and components.
  • Safe substitution must be anticipated and put more focus on in regulatory processes in order to avoid regrettable replacements, when a substance or group of substance are being restricted.
  • Ensure full transparency on chemical content throughout the supply chain and towards consumers.

Notes:

‘Turning the Plastic Tide – The chemicals in plastic that put our health at risk”, released September 2020, is available for download here.

Contact:

Natacha Cingotti, Senior Health and Chemicals Policy Officer at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), natacha@env-health.org