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Plastic pollution: Health effects

Published : Friday, 7 May, 2021 at 12:00 AM  Count : 363



The invention of plastics has largely been considered as a boon for modern life due to their lightweight, high strength, and versatile application while being cheaper than other alternative materials. However, with the low biodegradability, overconsumption, and widespread mismanagement, plastics is now everywhere in all the environmental compartments and are held responsible for causing enormous pollution to air, soil, and water bodies. Bangladesh is no different from this global scenario. There has been a little effort to assess the amount of plastic waste and its consequence which is necessary to encounter.

It has been found that a major percentage of the used plastic is mismanaged in Bangladesh, posing a great threat to environment and human health. The most dangerous impact of plastic is that it takes thousands of years to decay. As a result, fish and wildlife are becoming intoxicated. Consequently, the toxins from plastics have enteredthe food chain, threatening human health. Microplastics entering the humanbody via direct exposures through ingestion or inhalation can lead to an arrayof health impacts, including inflammation, genotoxicity, oxidative stress, apoptosis, and necrosis, which are linked to an array of negative healthoutcomes including cancer, cardiovascular diseases.

Plastic pollution in oceans can affect human life in a number of ways. Toxins such as lead, mercury or cadmium arefound in fish in the ocean, some of the toxins present in plastics are directly related to health issues such as cancer, birth defects, childhood development issues, and problems of the immune system. It can cause cancer, birth defects, genetic changes, chronic bronchitis, ulcers, skin diseases, deafness, vision failure, indigestion, and liverdysfunction. Plastic is everywhere. Studies have found that certain chemicals in the plastic can leach out of the plastic and into the food and beverages we eat. Some of these chemicals have been linked to health problems such as metabolicdisorders like obesity and reduced fertility.   

According to a UN report on the environment that plastic items never decomposed fully, they just reduce their size. Those tiny particles come into the human body by travelling a very short distance. These particles can travel a long distance and remain in the environment for a longtime. Moreover, the burning of these plastics can release toxic gases and particlesin the air that can be inhaled by a human. Plastics have now become a global threat due to their long-lasting negative effect on every compartment ofthe environment-air, soil, and water.   

Due to their non-biodegradability they persist in the environment, for an unbelievably long time they migrate from one compartment to another and then get incorporated in the human food chain, causing adverse consequence on human health. Moreover, the toxic chemicals released when plastics are subjected to physical and chemical actions are also a health hazard. We need to conduct comprehensive study on plastic pollution in Bangladesh and to search potential eco-friendly alternatives to plastics and assist the policymakers to make fruitful policies to curb plastic pollution.    

When burned, plastic releases dangerouschemicals such as hydrochloric acid, sulphur dioxide, furans and heavy metals aswell as particulates. The emission of such elements is known to cause respiratory ailments and stress the human immune system. Infested by plastic particles, arable soil is becoming barren and crops and fruits are becoming contaminated; local water bodies and marine life on the Bangladesh coast are in danger. Air is riddled with dangerous chemicals that lead to respiratory problems. Children are the most vulnerable group to suchpollutions.    

The last few years have shown alarming rise in the rate of plastic related medical complaints. Furthermore, plastic wastes clogging drainage systems create water stagnation and encourage breeding grounds for mosquitoes, giving riseto an increase in the incidence of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue and malaria. Mismanagement of plastic waste is triggering disasters. Floods, aggravated by the blockage of the drainage system, are taking place at an accelerating rate.   

Setting up a proper legal framework and institutional structure to manage plastic waste is needed. This depends on a strong commitment and will at the state level, appropriate and informative planning, proper policy advocacy and regulation, strict monitoring and a holistic approach from the sustainable waste management pointof view. If the government wants to achieve all the Sustainable DevelopmentGoals (SDGs) and reduce environmental pollution, including proper solid waste managementshould be a major area of concern.

Despite being one of the most pervasive materials on the planet, plastic and its impact on human health remain poorly understood. Yet, exposure to plastic is expanding into new areas of environment and food chain as existing plastic products fragment into smaller particles and concentrate toxic chemicals. As plastic production increases, this exposure will only grow.      

Bangladesh produces single-use plastics waste is dumped in landfills. As most plastics are non-biodegradable, discarded plastic products break down into smaller particles called microplastics. These microplastics can stay in soil and water for a long time causing severe environmental pollution and eventually getting exposure to the food chain. In Bangladesh, single-use plastics are broadly used in restaurants, hotels, airlines, super-shops and groceries. The main reason behind it is its extremely cheap price and lack of affordable alternatives.  

Many countries have adopted alternatives to single-use plastics by using biodegradable packaging materials such as leaf, paper, bamboo sticks or leaf stems etc. Jute, the golden fibre of Bangladesh has tremendous potential to be an alternative to plastic bags. Lack of mass awareness and limited production are obstructing the process of plastic alternatives adoption.    

According to the World Health Organization, the existence of micro-plastic found in water bottles and table salt can cause respiratory diseases, heart and digestion issues. People are consuming plastics without knowing the danger which will affect their health in the long run. If things remain unturned, these health issues are going to take a toll on the healthcare system in Bangladesh. Economic impacts of pollution can have hazardous effects on agriculture, fisheries and the tourism sector of a country. Microplastics and toxins from emissions deposited in the soil can cause soil pollution resulting in land infertility.

The authorities concerned should follow the High Court directives and plan a framework of regular market monitoring and closing of polythene manufacturing factories. In addition the companies should be pushed towards following the plastic ban and using eco-friendly alternatives to plastic packaging, to prevent plastic pollution affecting human health.

Dr Zubair Khaled Huq,
Family Medicine, Gerontology,
Public Health Specialist

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