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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Plastic Is Everywhere (p. 108)

From chapter "Plastic"

By now plastic is almost everywhere. By everywhere I mean in a huge portion of consumer products, in food and packaging, in liquid containers and the liquids they contain. By everywhere I mean in the oceans and in the air and on the land. By everywhere I mean on Mount Everest and in the Marianas Trench and in remote forests. By everywhere I mean inside every mother’s breast milk, inside polar bear fat, inside every fish, inside every monkey, inside every songbird, inside every frog. And rest assured, it’s inside of you, too.

And that’s a very bad thing.

Let’s start with poly-brominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), used as flame retardants in products as varied as computers, carpeting, and paint. They’re also used extensively in automobiles, and along with pthalates (more on them in a moment) contribute to that “new car smell” that, while romanticized by some, in truth signals the off-gassing of poisons. PDBEs have been shown to cause liver and thyroid toxicity, reproductive problems, and memory loss.For the last three decades, the quantity of PDBEs dumped into the environment has doubled every three to five years. Not surprisingly, the load of PDBEs in our bodies has also doubled every three to five years (which means we have about 128 times as much of these PDBEs in our bodies as we did only twenty-eight years ago).

Pthalates, used to make plastic soft and pliable, are just as bad. Industrial civilization fabricates about a billion pounds of pthalates per year. Pthalates, used in millions of products from varnishes to cosmetics to the coatings of timed-release pharmaceuticals to packaged food, leach readily enough from those products so that by now they are found in our blood, urine, saliva, seminal fluid, breast milk, amniotic fluid. Pthalates are toxic to our reproductive systems.

But the danger of pthalates doesn’t stop there. In some food containers and plastic bottles, pthalates are used in tandem with bisphenol A (BPA). Industrial civilization pumps out about six billion pounds of BPA per year, and it’s found in nearly every human being, and presumably a similar proportion of nonhumans (not that most of us particularly care about them). The effects on living beings are horrific. Exposure levels of only .025 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day (at this point low levels of human exposure from diet are around 1.5 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day, and relatively high levels are around 13: of course prior to the invention of plastic, everyone’s ingestion was at precisely zero micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day) cause permanent changes to the genital tract, as well as changes in breast tissue that predispose cells to the effects of hormones and carcinogens. Two micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day leads to a 30 percent increase in prostate weight (have you wondered why there are so many ads for chemicals to reduce the effects of enlarged prostates?). At 2.4 the victims (for that’s what they, or rather we, are) suffer early puberty and a decline in testicular testosterone. At 2.5 there is an increased risk of breast cancer (and you have noticed the explosion in breast cancer rates, have you not?). Doses of ten micrograms per kilogram per day lead to increased risk of prostate cancer (Do I need to keep putting in these parenthetical comments, or do you see this now in your own life and the lives of those you love?). That same dose leads to decreases in maternal behavior. Double it and you’ve got damage to eggs and chromosomes. Raise it up to thirty micrograms per kilogram per day and you’ve got hyperactivity, and also a reversal of normal sex differences in brain structure (where are those damn family values people when you need them?). Raise it all the way to fifty-one micrograms per kilogram and you’ve finally exceeded what the United States deems safe exposure.

Of course industry liars, I mean, representatives, tell us repeatedly that bisphenol A is safe and that our exposure is tiny. But then again, industry liars, I mean representatives, are paid to lie about, I mean represent, the financial interests of the corporations, the rest of us (and the world) be damned. Literally. In this case, these lies take the form of doing tests on rats specially bred to be immune to the effects of this chemical, and then passing off these studies as meaningful; failing to disclose the fact that they’re are receiving money from chemical or plastics corporations; attempting to bribe scientists whose studies reveal bisphenol A to be dangerous; doing the sorts of statistical manipulations we’ve come to expect from corporate scientists; and of course good old-fashioned lying (as well as any number of forms of lying that would surprise even the most jaded).

But bisphenol A is not the worst of the plastics. That honor probably belongs to polyvinylchloride, or PVC. PVC is also one of the most common plastics: over fourteen billion pounds are manufactured each year just in North America. About 80 percent of this is used for construction, and a good portion of that is used for piping, and for vinyl siding and flooring. But it’s also used to insulate wires and for carpet backing, window and door frames, shower curtains, furniture, gutters, weatherstripping, moldings, and so on.And of course it’s also used extensively in hospitals, in everything from bedpans to catheters to enteral feeding devices to hemodialysis equipment to gloves to tubing. This gives people dioxins in two ways: through leaching, and through inhalation of smoke from burning this equipment later in the hospital incinerator. As Carolyn Raffensperger, executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said to me, “What are we going to do with the irony that conventional western health care is such a toxic industry? They incinerate PVC medical devices that have been used to treat your cancer, sending the toxic residue out to cause someone else’s disease. What sense does that make? They use mercury in thermometers in hospitals, then send that up the incinerator to be deposited in fish and eventually to give your child brain damage. Where does that make sense?”

Of course none of it makes sense.

Back to PVC. Part of the problem with PVC is that it’s a product of the chlorine industry, and has by now become the single largest use for chlorine. We’re all familiar with one form of chlorine: it’s in salt (sodium chloride). But the chlorine industry uses vast amounts of (taxpayer-subsidized) electricity to break that chemical bond and release an extremely reactive and rare form of chlorine. Also released are dioxins—lots of them.

Dioxin is the general name for a whole class of chemicals (polychlorinated dibenzodioxins, for those of you whose grades in chemistry were higher than mine), which exist in trace amounts in the natural world, but are for all practical purposes creations of the chemical and plastics industries. Dioxins are some of the most toxic substances imaginable, dangerous at doses of several parts per trillion (the equivalent of a few drops contaminating a trainload of liquid many miles long). They are highly carcinogenic, poisonous, and they also bind to the hormone receptors of cells, modifying not only the cells’ functioning (which would be bad enough) but also their actual genetic structure. Further, dioxins bind with fat, so they get stored there and when someone else eats this fat, they also eat the dioxins. Once they’re in your body, you are for the most part, stuck with them.Most dioxins have half-lives of between four and twenty years in your body.

Unfortunately, dioxins are not made only when PVC is manufactured. They can leach out from the PVC itself, and they’re also produced when PVC is burned. There are many other industrial sources of dioxins as well, including the infamous Agent Orange, but also including the production and use of chemicals such as herbicides and wood preservatives, the refining and burning of oil, car and truck exhaust, and so on. Dioxins are, truly, an inevitable by-product of the chemical and plastics industries.

You’ll be glad to know, however, that the PVC industry has your best interests at heart. In response to increasing outrage over the effects of dioxins on human health, in the 1990s the Vinyl Institute came up with a plan. The Institute stated, “The short-term objective of the plan is to mitigate the effects of negative press coverage by positioning the vinyl industry as a proactive and cooperating entity, working in tandem with EPA to characterize and minimize sources of dioxin.” And how did this “cooperating” work? Well, the Vinyl Institute and the Environmental Protection [sic] Agency cooperated on a plan whereby the PVC industry would be the sole supplier of information about dioxin emissions: it would collect, analyze, and interpret all of the data, and hand these interpretations to a criminally credulous EPA, which would then put its stamp of approval on this “data.”

These two members of this criminal conspiracy to poison us all agreed that this data could be peer reviewed, but because the collection processes themselves are confidential—invisible even to the peer review committee—there is no way for anyone outside of the industry to have any idea of the veracity of any part of this process.Which of course is the whole point.

Don’t you feel so much safer now?

Pthalates, bisphenol A, and dioxins are all in a class of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, meaning that they can, as one writer put it, “disrupt the endocrine system—the delicately balanced set of hormones and glands that affect virtually every organ and cell—by mimicking the female hormone estrogen. In marine environments, excess estrogen has led to Twilight Zone-esque discoveries of male fish and seagulls that [sic] have sprouted female sex organs.”

It ends up that, as Marc Goldstein, M.D., director of the Cornell Institute for Reproductive Medicine, says of pregnant women, “Prenatal exposure, even in very low doses, can cause irreversible damage in an unborn baby’s reproductive organs.”

Further, exposure, for example, to BPA also can make its victims fat (with both more and bigger fat cells). In the words of Dr Frederick vom Saal, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia who specifically studies estrogenic chemicals in plastics (and whose research has caused him to remove every polycarbonate plastic item from his home, and to stop buying plastic-wrapped food and canned goods), “These findings suggest that developmental exposure to BPA is contributing to the obesity epidemic that has occurred during the last two decades in the developed world, associated with the dramatic increase in the amount of plastic being produced each year.”BPA also causes victims’ insulin to surge and then crash. Is there a correlation between the rise of plastic and the 735 percent increase in diabetes in the United States since 1935?

No, of course not. There couldn’t be.



And this culture isn’t killing the world. And the oceans aren’t full of plastic.

And neither is my body.


Somebody make it stop.

Somebody stop this insanity before it kills us all.

No, we can’t wait for somebody. We have to do it.