New study shows plastic pollution threatens human health on a global scale

“The heavy toxic burdens associated with plastic – at every stage of its life cycle – offers another convincing argument why reducing and not increasing production of plastics is the only way forward. Plastic is lethal, and this report shows us why.”


We know that plastic pollution is detrimental to the environment. A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute while two million plastic bags are used every minute, both contributing to the growing plastic pollution problem. Now a new report details plastic’s harmful effects on human health as well.

According to the new report, Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, every stage of the plastic lifecycle is toxic to humans. Claiming that “plastic is a global health crisis hiding in plain sight”, authors look at each part of the plastic lifecycle from extraction and transport, to refining and manufacture, to consumer use, to waste management. Every step along the way has serious effects on human health.

The first step in the plastic lifecycle, extraction and transport, or fossil fuel extraction, includes inhalation and ingestion of chemicals through air and water, exposure to toxic emissions such as Benzene and VOCs, and health effects on the immune system, sensory organs, liver and kidneys. Chemicals humans are exposed to during this process are linked to cancers, neuro-,reproductive, and developmental toxicity. With 99% of plastics coming from fossil fuels, this stage is also particularly harmful to the environment as extraction requires the release of “an array of toxic substances into the air and water, often in significant volumes.”

The second step, refining and manufacture, also includes emissions exposure through water and air, including being exposed to toxic chemicals like Benzene, PAHs, and Styrene. Health impacts during this stage include cancers, neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, low birth weight, and eye and skin irritation.

Consumer use, the third step in the plastic lifecycle, includes emissions exposure to heavy metals, POPs, carcinogens, EDCs, and microplastics, exposure through skin contact, inhalation, and indigestion. Health impacts here include renal, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, neurological, reproduction, and respiratory systems, cancers, diabetes, and developmental toxicity.

Finally in the last stage, waste management, humans risk exposure through ingestion and inhalation, emissions include heavy metals, dioxins an furans, PAHs, and toxic recycling. Health impacts during the last stage include cancers, neurological damages, and damages to the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems.

Previous research into the human health impacts of plastic has focused on specific parts of the plastic lifecycle. As the new report points out:

Uncertainties and knowledge gaps undermine the full evaluation of both acute and long-term health risks at all stages of the plastic lifecycle, and limit the ability of consumers, communities, and regulators to make informed choices.

Lack of transparency of the chemicals in plastic and its production processes prevents a full assessment of its impacts, reduces the ability of regulators to develop adequate safeguards; consumers to make informed choices; and fenceline communities to limit their exposure.

Further research is urgently needed to: evaluate intersecting exposures, synergistic effects, and cumulative impacts of the mixtures of thousands of chemicals used in consumer goods; understand the potential transfer of microplastics and associated toxic chemicals to crops and animals; and understand the toxic impacts of microfibers and other plastic microparticles increasingly documented in human tissues

The authors conclude that reducing toxic exposure will require a variety of solutions and options due to the fact that plastic has a complex lifecycle and that every stage of the process needs to be modified.

Further key findings include:

  • Plastic requires a lifecycle approach. The narrow approaches to assessing and addressing plastic impacts to date are inadequate and inappropriate. Making informed decisions that address plastic risks demands a full lifecycle approach to understand the full scope of its toxic impacts on human health. It is also required to ensure that yet more and increasingly complex environmental problems are not created in the attempt to address this one.
  • At every stage of its lifecycle, plastic poses distinct risks to human health, arising from both exposure to plastic particles themselves and associated chemicals. The majority of people worldwide are exposed at multiple stages of this lifecycle.

The study was authored by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Earthworks, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), IPEN, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), University of Exeter, and UPSTREAM. You can read the executive summary here and the full report here.


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Alexandra Jacobo is a dedicated progressive writer, activist, and mother with a deep-rooted passion for social justice and political engagement. Her journey into political activism began in 2011 at Zuccotti Park, where she supported the Occupy movement by distributing blankets to occupiers, marking the start of her earnest commitment to progressive causes. Driven by a desire to educate and inspire, Alexandra focuses her writing on a range of progressive issues, aiming to foster positive change both domestically and internationally. Her work is characterized by a strong commitment to community empowerment and a belief in the power of informed public action. As a mother, Alexandra brings a unique and personal perspective to her activism, understanding the importance of shaping a better world for future generations. Her writing not only highlights the challenges we face but also champions the potential for collective action to create a more equitable and sustainable world.