OpinionNo Plastic Waste16 Sep 2022

Reducing Exposure to Plastic

With evidence mounting that plastic isn’t only in our environment but is now in our bodies, Professor Sarah Dunlop, neuroscientist and Head of Plastics and Human Health at Minderoo Foundation, shares how she reduces her exposure to plastic and the harmful chemicals it can contain.

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Professor Sarah Dunlop, Head of Plastics and Human Health at Minderoo Foundation and Professor Kevin Thomas, Research Director, outside the Minderoo Centre – Plastics and Human Health research facility at University of Queensland, Australia.

More than meets the eye

The recent findings of microplastics in human tissue samples such as lung and liver are not surprising, but there’s much more to learn and share about plastic as a health issue.

Over the last decade, there has been a growing awareness of the extent of plastic pollution, its devastating impacts on animals and the environment, and the challenges in collection and recycling. Now, there’s increasing concern about the potential human health impacts of plastic from certain chemical additives and the tiny microplastic particles that have recently been found in the human body.

Led by Dr Christos Symeonides at Minderoo Foundation, we recently published a review article ‘Hazards to human and planetary health from plastics production, use and waste’ in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health on this issue. Plastics contain thousands of chemicals, and many of them have not been tested for safety to people. This also means that in most places, government regulations do not protect us from these chemicals.

There is significant evidence from human studies that exposures to two types of chemicals found in plastics — phthalates and bisphenols — can affect health, especially if the exposure occurs during pregnancy or in early childhood.

However, we don’t yet have a strong understanding of the effects of micro- and nanoplastic particles in our bodies, which is why we partnered with The University of Queensland to build the  Minderoo research centre. The science of measuring these virus-sized particles requires highly specialised equipment and experts, such as Professor Kevin Thomas and his team.

What can we do?

Our scientific studies, and those of our international peers, have convinced us all to avoid food and drink contact with plastic where possible, especially when they are heated.

Other ways we can reduce risks of chemical exposure are to start with simple things — avoiding cooking or warming food in plastic, and not putting plastic in the dishwasher. We could eat fewer packaged foods or processed foods and use glass containers for food instead.

As well as avoiding plastic products, other things I do to decrease exposure to harmful plastic-associated chemicals in my home include:

  • Regular vacuuming and dusting
  • Not using personal care products that contain plastic microbeads
  • Avoiding cosmetics listing the ingredient ‘fragrance’, which often use phthalates as a solvent or stabiliser
  • Using stainless steel or ceramic coffee cups

Children and young people

Young children have additional exposure through oral exploratory behaviour and incidental ingestion, including chewing their toys and from chemicals in household dust and soil.

As a paediatrician, Christos also encourages alternative materials for baby’s toys that are likely to go in their mouth.

It’s safer to choose ones made of wood (without toxic paint), natural latex or food grade silicone. Look for the EU safety mark for children’s toys. Since 1999, all commonly used phthalate plasticisers were banned in toys made in Europe.

Our mission

What is important to me, and the plastics team at Minderoo Foundation, is to uncover the truth and help people, including regulators and industry, make informed decisions that better protect human health and our planet.

We are committed to banning and urgently phasing out harmful chemicals used in the production of plastics, and being certain that we don’t make the same mistakes with substitute chemicals.

Our shared responsibility

Minderoo Foundation is also collaborating with other world-leading scientists, clinicians, legal, regulatory and communication experts as well as government departments, intergovernmental organisations and NGOs. This includes partnerships with The University of Western Australia, Imperial College London, Common Seas, Food Packaging Forum, The Florey Institute and the International Society for Children’s Health and the Environment (ISCHE).