Plastic’s toxic trail: These polymers’ usage and disposal have their own set of dangers

Plastics not only pollute and affect human health during the production phase, but continue to do so during the usage phase, as well as through the disposal and the processing and recycling of plastic waste

By Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh
Published: Friday 26 April 2024
Salad being wrapped in plastic. Photo: iStock

Plastics pollute and have an impact on human health when they are used for various applications, especially for food contact applications like packaging.

Plastic packaging has become ubiquitous in modern society, offering convenience and durability for a wide range of products. However, concerns have been raised regarding the potential health risks associated, due to the chemicals that leach out from plastics during use.

Numerous studies have investigated the process of chemical leaching from plastic packaging materials into food, beverages, and the environment. Research indicates that leaching occurs through a combination of factors, including temperature, pH, and the duration of contact between the plastic and the substance it contains. Common chemicals found in plastic packaging include bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, and various other additives used in the manufacturing process.

The chemicals leached from plastic packaging have been linked to a range of adverse health effects in humans. BPA, for example, is known to disrupt endocrine function and has been associated with reproductive disorders, obesity, and increased risk of certain cancers. Phthalates, commonly used as plasticisers, have been linked to hormonal imbalances, developmental abnormalities, and adverse effects on reproductive health. Furthermore, other additives found in plastics, such as flame retardants and antimicrobial agents, have been associated with neurotoxicity and immune system disruption.

Exposure to chemicals from plastic packaging can occur through various routes, including ingestion, inhalation, and dermal contact. Food and beverages stored in plastic containers are a significant source of exposure, as are household products packaged in plastic. Additionally, airborne particles released from plastic packaging materials can be inhaled, contributing to indoor air pollution. Moreover, dermal contact with plastic packaging materials can result in the absorption of chemicals through the skin.

Recycling the ultimate solution?

Plastic recycling is often touted as the solution to the plastic menace that we have to deal with as a society. However, a recent report by Toxic links (a New Delhi based not-for-profit) revealed products made from recycled plastics contain harmful chemicals.


The study collected samples of products made from recycled plastics and bifurcated them into three categories — food contact applications, toys, and miscellaneous applications. Testing was done for 5 kinds of chemicals — Bisphenol A, Nonyl phenol, Chlorinated parraffins, phthalates, and heavy metals. Ten of the 15 samples tested indicated presence of the chemicals being searched for.

Chemicals being tested Samples that tested positive Range
BPA 8 0.3mgkg to 161mg/kg
Chlorinated paraffins 4 111 mg/kg to 338 mg/kg
Nonylphenols 4 38.5 mg/kg to 522 mg/kg
Heavy metals (As, Cd, Cr) 2 Cd- 89 mg/kg
Pb- 121 mg/kg
Cr- 33.9 mg/kg
Phthalates 3 85 mg/kg to 220000 mg/ kg
Source: Is plastic recycling safe? Toxic links, 2024

Six of 10 samples that tested positive, had presence of more than one chemical and 2 of these had an exceptionally high rate of chemical detection.

Moreover, the problem with analytical methods is they only detect what the researcher is looking for. This means that the samples tested may have many more types of chemicals that would affect human health. However, since they were not tested for, they did not get identified or quantified.

This indicates that plastics not only pollute and affect human health during the production phase in huge petrochemical plants, but continue to do so during the usage phase, as well as through the disposal and the processing and recycling of plastic waste.

Other methods of processing waste are thermal technologies like co-processing, waste to energy and road making. All these technologies have been labelled as false solutions by many civil societies at a global level. The argument is to not look at plastic waste merely as a waste management problem but also consider the externalities of such projects, since the projects directly and indirectly impact human health through deteriorated air and water quality.

2024 research paper in Science Direct notes: “Burning of the plastic waste and thermal degradation process releases sixteen types of Polycyclic aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) compounds to the environment. Inhaling of the PAHs compounds leads to human health effects such as cancer, respiratory diseases and childhood obesity.”

Many member states have consented to incorporate language concerning human health into the objective of the forthcoming legally binding instrument aimed at eradicating plastic pollution. Nonetheless, representatives from the plastic industry have been rejecting scientific conclusions and advocating for further localised research before acknowledging and addressing the connections between plastic usage and disposal and human health.

This is the fourth in a 5-part series. Read the first, secondthird and fifth parts. 

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