My father died young because the asbestos industry chose to lie to the public about the dangers of their product for decades. When I was born, Dad dropped out of college and went to work in a steel mill in Grand Rapids; as the hot steel came out of the furnace it passed over asbestos-covered rollers, causing him to work in a cloud of asbestos dust for over a year. He died in 2006 from mesothelioma; his story is here.
As recently as 2015, that industry has been caught paying off Republican members of Congress to make it harder for people like my father to claim any sort of compensation for having their lives cut short.
Now the plastics and chemical industries are fixing to do the same to our children and grandchildren. Already, they’re paying off Republicans in both the US Congress and in state houses across the country to keep our environment and food supply filled with potentially deadly microplastics.
ALEC even brags about their “model legislation” that GOP-controlled state legislatures can pass to block cities, towns, and counties from putting plastic bag or other container deposits into place:
“Every day there is news of another potential ban or tax on plastic bags in one part of the country or another,” complains the ALEC.org site. “Thankfully, however,” they add, “the common sense of the people – and yes, even legislators – often prevails.”
Along with some hefty campaign contributions from the plastics and fossil fuel industries, no doubt.
And the effort to keep that plastic profitably flowing off the manufacturing lines and into our environment is on a roll. The deadly breakdown product of plastic — microplastic — is now everywhere on Earth.
Louise and I recently returned from a lifetime-bucket-list trip to Antarctica (ironically, we’d booked the trip for 2006, but Dad’s illness forced us to cancel it; we finally got back to it last November). We picked the only line (Viking) that both carries tourists and is simultaneously doing real, peer-reviewable-quality science.
Thus, in addition to hanging out with penguins last Thanksgiving, we spent a lot of time in the lab and listening to some truly brilliant lectures from PhD level scientists working aboard. Most of what they’ve been doing with the ship we were on, for the past several years, is scouring the world’s last “pristine wilderness” for microplastics.
And they and other scientific expeditions in the region are finding the stuff everywhere, from autopsied Antarctic animals to tiny marine life to the ocean waters that flow around the continent. One scientist told me that they have yet to find even one single autopsied Antarctic animal whose flesh, blood, or organs didn’t contain microplastics.
They looked at five samples acquired at a local Walmart and found that the number of microplastic particles ranged from 110,000 to over 400,000 per liter.
The “new” particles they were able to discover with the more powerful microscopes and other instruments are smaller than “normal” microplastics: these are nanoplastics, pieces of plastic that are so small they can only be seen under a powerful microscope.
Their size is particularly troubling because they’re small enough to pass through most of the body’s membranes and so are found in every organ, including the brain.
One particularly damning study laid it out unambiguously:
“The researchers found that the particles had begun to bioaccumulate in every organ, including the brain, as well as in bodily waste.”
Thus reads a University of Rhode Island analysis of research on microplastics by a team of their scientists just published in the International Journal of Molecular Science. The URI team fed mice microplastics via drinking water at levels comparable to high levels of human exposure, and this week the university reported:
“They found that microplastic exposure induces both behavioral changes and alterations in immune markers in liver and brain tissues. The study mice began to move and behave peculiarly, exhibiting behaviors akin to dementia in humans. The results were even more profound in older animals.”
Micro- and nanoplastics appear to kill and cause disability through two different mechanisms.
The first is mechanical.
While the science is still early, a leading hypothesis connecting microplastics in food to colon cancer suggests that the plastic particles, being rigid like tiny particles of glass or sand, puncture or otherwise disrupt the mucous lining of the gut.
That, in turn, lets sensitive colon tissues have direct contact with gastric juices and food substances (and additives) that provoke inflammation. Inflammatory processes often precede the formation of cancers of many types, although the actual details of the process are still subject to scientific debate.
This is also how asbestos causes cancer, only in the tissues and lining of the lungs.
The second way microplastics might cause cancer is with the chemical load they carry, particularly plasticizers and some of the “forever chemicals” used in their manufacture. According to the EPA, there are over 9,000 of these types of chemicals in common use and filling our food supply, from additives to packaging to plastic manufacturing.
Amy Vanderpool documents, in her brilliant Shero newsletter, how a new study has found the cost to America of disease, birth defects, and disability caused just by this family of chemicals is over a quarter-trillion dollars a year.
While Europe uses the “precautionary principle” that prevents chemicals from being introduced into the environment or food supply until they’re proven safe, here in the US we use Libertarianism: we only ban chemicals after they’ve been in use long enough to kill so many people that we realize they’re dangerous.
And even then, the companies that profit from them will tie up any regulatory or congressional efforts to get them under control with years of lawsuits and hundreds of millions in lobbying.
A new study just published in Environmental Health Perspectives found over 900 chemicals, most associated with plastics, currently found in the US food supply with the potential to cause breast cancer. They found 278 that directly caused breast tumors in animals, and 642 chemicals that disrupt or imitate sex hormones and can thus be assumed to factor into breast, uterine, and prostate cancer (among others).
None are currently subject to any significant regulation, and every effort to do so by Congress is thwarted by the GOP.
Back in 2021, Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats succeeded in passing a bill that would have subjected these often-toxic, cancer-causing chemicals to regulatory oversight. It died in the Senate in the face of a Republican filibuster.
Last March, the EPA determined that there is basically no safe level of exposure with the “forever” family of chemicals, no matter how small, that isn’t dangerous to human health. Republicans continue to block any effort to regulate the substances, however, as Red state after Red state pass preemption laws to keep the chemicals safe from things like local bag bans or plastic recycling mandates.
When little Bisbee, Arizona banned plastic bags, for example, Republicans in the state legislature passed an ALEC-proposed law preempting the right of any city in the state to ban them. Now, no city in Arizona — nor in about a dozen other Red states — can ban plastic bags or other things that contribute to microplastics in their environment.
And it’s not just bottled water where you’ll find microplastics.
Just last week, The Washington Post ran an in-depth article titled “Which Proteins Contain the Most Microplastics?” It summarized the results of a new study, “Exposure of U.S. Adults to Microplastics from Commonly-Consumed Proteins,” that found microplastics in everything from beef to fish to chicken and even plant-based faux meat.
There’s new evidence microplastics can even cause or increase the lethality of breast cancers. A new study published in Nature Briefing Cancer concluded:
“We found that moderate amounts of PPMPs [polypropylene microplastics] significantly accelerated the cell cycle of cancer cells and enhanced the secretion of interleukin 6 (IL-6) in the human breast cancer cell lines… Consequently, chronic exposure to PPMPs may increase the risk of cancer progression and metastasis.”
And these particles are everywhere. In Antarctica, they’ve even found them in the bodies of baby penguins:
“Not even four weeks old, Gentoo penguin chicks already have large amounts of microplastics in their digestive tract, especially polyethylene, a study shows. The high number of particles — 27 per chick on average — surprised even the … research team.”
A study published in the journal Environmental Sciences Technology looked at 3,600 processed food samples (based on statistics suggesting most Americans eat about 15 percent of their diet as processed foods) and found these annual numbers:
“Evaluating approximately 15% of Americans’ caloric intake, we estimate that annual microplastics consumption ranges from 39,000 to 52,000 particles depending on age and sex. These estimates increase to 74,000 and 121,000 when inhalation is considered. Additionally, individuals who meet their recommended water intake through only bottled sources may be ingesting an additional 90,000 microplastics annually, compared to 4,000 microplastics for those who consume only tap water.”
And all of that was before the new SRS Microscopy techniques — which have bumped the number of discoverable particles in a bottle of store-bought water from 10,000 to 400,000 — were applied to this area of research.
It’s a not-inconceivable possibility that microplastics could bring about the demise of much of the human race. They’re now known to affect fertility, as well as both imitating and altering sex hormones, and may play a role in the radical drop in male fertility the entire world has seen over the past two decades.
To the extent that they can damage reproductive-cell DNA, they could be causing mutations and genetically-transmitted diseases that will live on in the human race for millennia.
While research continues on the biological impacts of ingesting microplastics, the politics of the substances are complex. The plastics business is the 8th largest industry in America, employing roughly a million people and generating just short of a half-trillion dollars annually.
In a fit of nostalgia for our childhood TV shows, Louise and I recently watched an early 1960s episode of Bewitched, starring the late Elizabeth Montgomery. She opened the door to her refrigerator and I had to freeze-frame the screen for a moment: everything in her ‘fridge was either in glass (milk, juice, pickles, condiments) or tinfoil.
That decade — the 1960s — was literally the beginning of the widespread use of plastic to package or process foods. I remember the first TV dinners that my parents were so fascinated with during that era: they were in tinfoil containers you’d put in the oven, and the containers were packaged for store display in waxed cardboard boxes.
Odds are there wasn’t a single piece of plastic or microplastic in Antarctica back then, or pretty much anywhere else: prior to the ‘60s, plastics were largely confined to military applications. Even TV sets and stereos were in boxes made from wood.
Like with asbestos and tobacco for earlier generations, the profit motive and the ability of industry to legally bribe politicians (thanks to five corrupt billionaire-owned Republicans on the Supreme Court) have thrown us into a third massive, nationwide, multi-generational epidemiological experiment.
Many Americans thought that after being lied to for decades by the fossil fuel, asbestos, and tobacco industries we could take a breather and get back to life. Sadly, we’re far from that luxury, as our trip to Antarctica showed us.
And even though it’s already costing us a quarter-billion dollars in sickness and tens of thousands of lost lives every year, the SCOTUS-approved gravy train from industry to Congress continues to roll along.