The fourth round of Global Plastics Treaty negotiations (INC-4) is happening in Ottawa from 23-29 April 2024. LEARN MORE

Health & Toxics Digital Toolkit

Plastic is in your body

Understanding the toxicity of plastic and ways to take action

Plastic and the pollution it causes has detrimental effects on human health.

Right from the outset, petrochemical companies and the fossil fuel industries that support them cause toxic emissions that have adverse impacts on human health. Underserved populations living in the vicinity of petrochemical refineries and transport corridors of toxic petrochemical feedstocks have a higher chance of contracting respiratory and cancer diseases from emissions, toxic fires and flares.The impact of these hazardous plastic particles and toxic chemicals on human health has begun way before the material has even been put to use.

Humans continue to be exposed to hidden micro and nano plastic pollution with the constant daily interaction we have with plastic, whether that be through our food, the packaging it comes in, the water we drink or the air we breathe.

At the stage of disposal and waste management plastic pollution continues to seep into the environment. As a result waste workers, in particular, suffer the health consequences of being in close contact with burning plastic. Their exposure to plastic pollution is further increased by having to breathe air and drink water contaminated with microplastics. Plastic recycling workers also have increased rates of cardiovascular disease, toxic metal poisoning, neuropathy, and lung cancer.

Exposure to plastic pollution affects everyone. But persons living in poverty, people of color, Indigenous peoples, rural communities, and fenceline and environmental justice communities, and populations in the Global South, bear the uneven health costs of plastic production, use and disposal.

It’s time to counter the dangerous narrative that plastic is safe, hygienic, and convenient:

a message pushed by industries connected to or profiting from plastic production, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. We need to listen to global health researchers and frontline communities who have revealed the true toxic impacts of plastics on health.

This health & toxics digital toolkit provides key messages and resources to help forge a deeper understanding of the complexities of plastic pollution and interactions with human health. Use this toolkit to help advocate for local, national and regional policies that hold polluting corporations and plastic producing countries accountable for the profound harms to health rights, human rights, ecosystems, and economies arising from the production, deployment, and disposal of plastics.

From reproductive issues, to cancer to hormone disruption, an increasing number of research is exposing the impact of plastics and plastic pollution on human health.


Key Messages

hello world!
What is the problem
Who is to blame
How can harm be reduced
Building transformative solutions

Introduction of toxic chemicals

The plastics industry introduces toxic chemicals into our economies, ecosystems and our bodies through plastic.

Plastics are more than a material

Plastics are more than just single materials. They are composed of thousands of different (often hazardous) chemicals which are intentionally, or sometimes unintentionally added.

Plastics are toxic

The building blocks of plastic materials are toxic, with additional harmful additives also added. The lifecycle of plastics creates serious impacts that affect the enjoyment of fundamental human rights such as the right to health, the right to life, the right to a clean and healthy environment, as well as worker rights.

Plastics are not clean

Plastics are not as “clean” and sterile as the plastics industry claims. They are vectors for toxic chemicals which impact humans at all stages of their endless existence.

Exposure to plastics

Humans are exposed to chemicals and plastic particles through various routes, including ingestion, inhalation and direct skin contact. The chemicals leached from these plastic particles can disrupt endocrine (hormonal) functions, lead to various types of cancer, impair organ function, and disrupt development in children, right from the embryo stage.

Plastics are in our bodies

Plastics are in our bodies. When plastics end up in the environment (ocean, land, air, fresh waterways) they break up into particles and the toxic chemicals they contain enter ecosystems and human food chains where they accumulate and remain for prolonged periods of time. Microplastics have been found in human blood, lungs, organs, placentas, and breast milk.

Plastic goods pose hazards to consumers

When consumers eat from, drink from and otherwise use plastic products, toxic additives can enter their bodies. These additives are linked to a wide variety of health effects including cancer, endocrine (hormone) disruption, infertility, diabetes as well as reproductive and developmental harm.

Plastics are a safety concern

Safety is a concern across the lifecycle of plastics. Recycling processes create pathways through which humans can be exposed to toxic chemicals. Recycled plastics can even contain hazardous chemicals at levels higher than those found in virgin plastic materials.

“Chemical recycling” is unjust

Many of the same communities targeted by the fossil fuel and plastic production industry are now also being targeted for so-called “chemical recycling” facilities, reinforcing the health injustices caused by its pollution.

Plastic is a human rights and social justice issue

Plastic pollution is a human rights and social justice issue which particularly affects lower economic populations, Indigenous peoples, people of color, rural and coastal communities, and communities across the Global South. They bear the uneven costs of plastic pollution, waste and production and are often the ones with lowest access to resources to deal with the impacts of this pollution.

Vulnerable populations are most affected

Vulnerable populations (including infants, children, pregnant women) are most at-risk of health impacts from plastic pollution.

Responsibility lies with plastic producers

The responsibility for reducing and remediating plastic pollution and the health impacts of plastics on people and the environment must be put on plastic producers, the petrochemical industry and the fossil fuel industry.

Responsibility does not lie with the individual

Plastic producers and the fossil fuel industry, aided by government subsidies and other forms of support, have put the responsibility of solving the problem on individual behavior change. This tactic has enabled business as usual with continued production, pollution and exploitation of communities most impacted by plastics and fossil fuels.

“Chemical recycling” causes harm to health

Most recently, the plastic industry has pushed for so-called “chemical recycling” or “advanced recycling” to tackle plastic pollution. They are extremely toxic and carbon-intensive processes which dissolve plastic into its toxic petrochemical components. In most cases, these components are then burned, causing further emissions. This largely unproven technology is highly polluting and undermines real solutions to plastic pollution.

Prevent harm

To prevent further harm caused by plastic pollution, more effort is needed to identify safer and more sustainable alternatives to plastic materials.

Design toxic chemicals out

Toxic chemicals must be designed out of plastics as much as possible.

Remove most toxic chemicals from circulation

Plastics containing the most toxic chemicals must be removed from circulation in the circular economy to avoid uncontrolled exposure.

Plastics threaten human health

While scientists and researchers are still working to understand the range of health effects caused by plastics, there is already overwhelming evidence that plastics threaten environmental and human health. Governments should take immediate action and enact policies to address the health risks posed by the entire life cycle of plastics.

Governments must hold industry accountable

Governments can and must hold the plastics and petrochemical industries accountable for the health impacts caused along the plastic lifecycle through regulation, transparency and financial accountability.

Reduce plastic production

Production of plastic must be drastically diminished and chemical ingredient transparency and accurate labeling must disclose toxic content of plastics.

Just solutions must focus on reuse

We need just solutions focused on non-toxic refill, reuse systems which replace use of plastics, especially where they are most easily eliminated (i.e. single-use plastics).

Microplastic exposure

Microplastics are an emerging global health threat. Since there is already so much plastic in the environment, the only true way to prevent further exposure to microplastics is to reduce and ultimately eliminate plastic production.

In 2023, the Global Plastics Treaty negotiations are entering the next phase. The #BreakFreeFromPlastic movement and global health researchers and organizations from around the world have an opportunity to push for a treaty that protects human health from the full range of toxic impacts caused by plastic production, transportation, use, and disposal.

As international negotiations progress to implementation of national action plans, the Global Plastics Treaty provides a unique opportunity for governments to hold the fossil fuel and plastics industry to account for the harm they cause to human health. 

Understand the true human health cost of plastics and plastic production.

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