by Jeenaev Shah
What if I told you that you were exposed to a variety of dangerous chemicals and hazardous substances in our dabao containers, and other products that we use in our day-to-day lives? Chemicals and substances that are hurting our wellbeing and that of our environment? Chemicals that could be easily avoided?
To understand what these impacts are and how to prevent them, we need to understand why they are happening. But before that, we need to understand what synthetics are.
Synthetics are materials or substances that are made via chemical reaction, with examples being plastics and pesticides. Plastics are something that many people around the world use in their everyday lives. The nature-based magazine National Geographic estimates that around one million plastic beverage bottles are sold around the world each minute. However, what many people don’t realize is that the means of production for plastic is as much of a threat to the environment as the discarding of it.
As reported by Columbia University’s Earth Institute, plastic is made by extracting oil from the ground, with 99% of plastics being made by either oil or natural gas. The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that around 8% of the world’s oil production is used to either make plastic or power the manufacturing of it. The WEF also estimates that the figure will rise to 20% by 2050 — which spells insane implications for our climate.
Besides climate change, there are also hazardous impacts on human health. Toxic synthetics leach out of these plastics during usage. In a test conducted by the University of Gothenburg, out of the 83 randomly selected plastic products, a third of them released toxic substances when tested, including 5 of the 13 products that were intended for children.
“Considering how common plastic products are, how quickly the production of plastic has increased and the number of chemicals that humans and the environment are exposed to, it is important to replace the most hazardous substances in plastic products with less hazardous alternatives,” says Delilah Lithner of the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of Gothenburg, one of the researchers of the study.
But it’s not just plastic that we need to worry about. Toxic chemicals in many types of synthetics are a huge concern.
A review published in July in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology journal shows a variety of studies that have found certain chemicals, especially endocrine-disrupting ones, in many types of synthetics including plastics, pesticides, and flame retardants. Since the endocrine system makes our hormones in our body, it is essentially fundamental to our functioning and well-being. These chemicals may cause weight gain in women, prostate cancer in men, to name just a few examples.
According to Dr. Leonardo Trasande, the senior author of the study and Chief of Environmental Pediatrics at NYU Langone, an academic medical facility, “[Toxic chemicals in synthetics] is a global problem. These are chemicals used in consumer products all across the world”.
The study also found that inflame retardants – the coating of many synthetic products – contain polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDE. These are the “greatest contributor to intellectual disability” in children, with the study stating that they have caused over 738,000 cases of intellectual disability and a total loss of 162 million IQ points! According to the study, the health care costs of exposures to the endocrine-disrupting chemicals are $187 billion USD in Europe and $340 billion USD in the US.
And these results aren’t anomalies. Similar findings have also been published by other scientists and researchers, such as the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO has also reported 15 ways that chemicals used in plastics, pesticides, and flame retardants can affect babies in the womb to adulthood including autism, obesity, and intellectual disability (link).
So, how can we solve this issue of toxic chemicals in synthetics that are not only hurting our environment but are costing us hundreds of billions of dollars and damaging our bodies?
The main solution would be to avoid buying and using products that can increase exposure to toxic synthetic chemicals, and this doesn’t just apply to plastic. You could use stainless steel instead of items and materials that have a non-stick surface, or not purchasing canned foods and not taking store receipts (which would decrease Bisphenol-A, a chemical that has been proven to contribute to breast cancer, birth defects, and obesity). You can also start petitions, or call on your local politicians to address this issue.
In conclusion, while it may seem so, you and your loved ones aren’t helpless. There is a multitude of solutions to solve the synthetic chemical crisis, solutions that can be easily incorporated into our everyday lives.
Jeenaev Shah is a 14-year-old student at UWCSEA East Campus, passionate about ending plastic pollution, electronic waste, and climate change. He is part of his school’s Service Executive Committee, a group of student leaders that organizes many large-scale community service events at his school. He was also featured in Plastic-Lite’s National Day Campaign last year. In his spare time he enjoys writing, reading, and cycling.