Plastics are possibly disastrous for our health, not just the environment. That is the message emerging from the many research projects being conducted internationally. The wonder material has become so ubiquitous that it can be found now in almost every part of the planet, including our bodies, but the long-term effects of that are still unknown.
The dark side of the plastics story has been slowly reaching us and the evidence is becoming overwhelming. Scientists commissioned by Orb Media recently conducted an analysis of the water contained in 259 plastic bottles of 11 different well-known brands from nine countries and found that only 17 did not have microplastic fibres floating around – mainly polypropylene from which the caps are made. Nobody knows if those particles are damaging the human body but they could be because they are so small they can penetrate cells, which means they can get into our organs. According to a report on the BBC website, microplastics contain and absorb toxic chemicals, and scientists know that these are released in the gut of animals and were found in a third of fish caught in the UK.
In Germany, according to a UK Guardian report, microplastics have been found in 24 brands of beer, in honey and sugar. Also in Germany, traces of bisphenol A (BPA) turned up in the urine of 591 out of 599 children tested. BPA is apparently one of the world’s best-selling chemicals and was originally developed as a synthetic mimic of the female sex hormone oestrogen. However, it was sold as an industrial chemical and in 1957 when it was polymerised with phosgene to produce polycarbonate it propelled the plastics revolution. It is used to manufacture water bottles but can leach into the water. Known as an endocrine disruptor, it affects our hormones and research has linked the chemical to an increased risk of cancer, cell tumors, miscarriages and birth defects. It is also linked to learning difficulties and diabetes. Ninety per cent of people globally are suspected of having BPA in their urine.
The effect of these discoveries and the undeniable negative impact of waste plastic bottles upon the world’s oceans and marine life has been to make us consider our personal use of bottled water and encouraged governments to take radical steps to reduce the use of plastics, especially in relation to human food consumption. In the relatively small UK where a staggering 38.5 million plastic bottles are used every day, a nationwide refill campaign to provide free drinking water to everybody in public places will see businesses, cafes and shops agree to refill empty bottles for customers for free. Already, over 1,600 refill stations exist and all the water companies are on board. That means millions fewer waste plastic bottles to pollute landfills and seep into water aquifers.
Plastic-bottled water is in the front line of the war on plastics. I tried to remember when the bottled water fad started and located it back in the late 1980s, spreading rapidly during the 1990s in the UK where I lived at the time. The get-fit trend, which included hydrating oneself for optimum health, promoted the nourishing-looking, crystal-clear water in shiny bottles that tasted so much better than the water from water fountains and taps. As gym culture grew, so did the water fad.
There was also a stupendous rise in synthetic drugs that seemed part of the synthesised music and club culture. Young people knew that they had to hydrate well while doing those drugs. Suddenly, they were carrying large plastic bottles of water everywhere. In many countries, bottled water is the only “clean” water there is. In TT, I imagine it was the availability of bottled water that triggered demand as much as the irregularity and poor quality of our water supply. As an aside, I would add that the colour of the water leaving my tap was the colour of mud most of the time. I installed a series of filters which when removed are covered in sludge as thick as you might find in the mud volcanoes of Piparo.
Consumers everywhere are vulnerable to the marketing ploys of big business but drink manufacturers cannot be solely responsible for the nightmarish human and environmental damage we face. Microplastic contamination has been found in tap water and well samples from around the world. Plastics are widely used in the manufacture of household goods, demanding the production of nearly 300 million tonnes annually, of which only 20 per cent is recycled. Scientists speculate that much of it ends up in the air, land, sea, and eventually in our bodies.