Reduce plastic toxicity to enjoy longer healthy lives | Sunday Observer

Reduce plastic toxicity to enjoy longer healthy lives

4 July, 2021

Following the recent announcement of the Environment Ministry to ban all lunch sheets and enforce laws against plastic pollution to our water bodies and air the Sunday Observer spoke to Emeritus Professor of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, University of Colombo and the Senior Professor of Forensic Medicine, General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University Professor Ravindra Fernando to find out how plastic toxicity impacts human health.

Q. The Environment Ministry just announced that they will completely ban all lunch sheets in Sri Lanka and the Minister said that we would be the first and only country in the world to ban all lunch sheets. According to him the decision was based due to the global report that Sri Lanka is the world’s fifth largest marine polluter of single use plastics. Do you think this is a step in the right direction?

A. Polyethylene bags, since their emergence in the 1940s, is an incredibly useful, highly convenient, strong and inexpensive, to both customers and businesses as a reliable way to deliver goods from the store to home. Polythene is the most common plastic and with multiple use in our daily life.

Despite its user-friendly character, it has a huge negative impact on the global environment and the agricultural sector per se. It is said that about 100 billion shopping bags are issued to consumers every year by supermarket chains and 10 million lunch seats are added to the environment every day. Therefore, I consider that this is a step in right direction.

Q. We are amid the Covid pandemic. What is the effect of Covid -19 on plastics and environmental pollution?

A. Plastic products have played significant roles in protecting people during the Covid-19 pandemic. The widespread use of personal protective gear created a massive disruption in the supply chain and waste disposal system.

Millions of discarded single-use plastics (masks, gloves, aprons, and bottles of sanitisers) have been added to the terrestrial environment and could cause a surge in plastics washing up the ocean coastlines and littering the sea bed.

The amount of plastic wastes generated worldwide since the outbreak is estimated at 1.6 million tonnes a day. It is estimated that approximately 3.4 billion single-use face masks and face shields are discarded daily as a result of Cobid-19 pandemic, globally.

Covid-19 will reverse the momentum of years-long global battle to reduce plastic waste pollution. As Governments are looking to turbo-charge the economy by supporting businesses wither the pandemic, there is an opportunity to rebuild new industries that can innovate new reusable or non-plastic personal protective equipment (PPE).

The unanticipated occurrence of a pandemic of this scale has resulted in unmanageable levels of biomedical plastic wastes.

Q. What are the adverse effects of inhaling these poisonous gases in the environment into our bodies?

A. Some adverse health effects caused by plastic are asthma, lung cancer due to inhalation of poisonous gases, liver damage, nerve and brain damage, and kidney diseases

Q. What are the most commonly used plastic products used in Sri Lanka?

A. The most common plastic waste products are straws, yoghurt cups, mega bottles, lunch sheets, milk packets, meal boxes, polyethylene bags, sachet packets and wrappers.

Q. The following items will be banned with effect from March 2021.

(a) Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) material for packing agro chemicals used for any process, trade or industry; and

(b) any plastic item specified herein for any process, trade or industry:-

(i) Sachets having less than or equal to a net volume of 20ml net weight of 20g (except for packing food and medicines).

(ii) Inflatable toys (except balloons, balls, water floating and pool toys and water sports gear).

(iii) Cotton buds with plastic stems (except plastic cotton buds used for medical or clinical treatment). Your comments ?

A. Under the provisions of Section 23 W of the National Environmental Act, No. 47 of 1980, an extraordinary Gazette No. 2034/38 was issued. According to this Gazette, manufacture of food containers (lunch boxes), plates, cups and spoons from expanded polystyrene for in country use and the sale, offer for sale, offer free of charge, exhibition or use of food containers, plates, cups and spoons manufactured from expanded polystyrene within the country was banned. It seems that this Gazette notice was not properly implemented.

Q. In general how does inhaling this toxic material affect us? Can inhaling this toxic material affect those with breathing difficulties.?

A. Micro plastics have already been discovered in human stool, so we know they pass through our bodies. Similarly, plastic components such as bisphenol A (BPA) have been discovered in urine, in samples of human tissue including lungs, meaning they linger in our bodies, not just pass through them.

These objects often pass all the way through the digestive tract in 24 to 48 hours and cause no harm. But problems may arise when objects are stuck for a long time, are sharp, are magnetic or contain corrosive materials.

Q. How long does plastic remain in our system?

A. Plastic will leave your system after a day since it is small and your body tries to get rid of anything that cannot be dissolved or used effectively. But, constantly eating plastic or food that is packaged in plastic can leave long-term side effects that you want to avoid.

Q. Such as?

A. Toxic chemicals leach out of plastic and are found in the blood and tissue of nearly all of us. Exposure to them is linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments.

Inhaled plastics can produce inflammation and lesions in lungs, and repeated exposure is suspected of leading to respiratory problems like asthma and cancer. Those statistics most likely include some of the effects of plastic.

Q. It has been said that there are three worst effects of plastic pollution. What are they?

A. They include; physical impact on marine life: entanglement, ingestion, starvation. Chemical impact: the buildup of persistent organic pollutants like PCBs, and transport of invasive species and pollutants from polluted rivers to remote areas in the ocean.

Q. Is there such a thing as safe plastic?

A. Some plastics, like those that contain BPA or other harmful chemicals, can negatively affect our bodies or the world we live in. Polypropylene, a complex plastic, is generally considered safe for humans.

Q. How much plastics are used in Sri Lanka?

A. According to the ‘’, Sri Lanka is placed as the 5th largest plastic polluter in the world among countries such as China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

According to Sri Lanka’s Central Environment Agency (CEA), the island annually imports 200,000 metric tons of raw plastic materials, around 70% is for daily use while only 30% is for exports.

Q. In addition, there are incense stocks, hair sprays, disinfectants that pollute the air which is especially dangerous in closed environments. How can we protect ourselves from this toxic indoor air pollution? Your comments.

A. Numerous forms of indoor air pollution are possible in the modern home. Air pollutant levels in the home increase if not enough outdoor air is brought in to dilute emissions from indoor sources and to carry indoor air pollutants out of the home.

In addition, high temperature and humidity levels can increase the concentration of some pollutants. Indoor pollutants can be placed into two groups, biological and chemical.

Q. What is the difference? Are they related?

A. Biological pollutants include bacteria, molds, viruses, animal dander, cat saliva, dust mites, cockroaches, and pollen. These biologic pollutants can be related to some serious health effects. Some biologic pollutants, such as measles, chickenpox, and influenza are transmitted through the air. However, the first two are now preventable with vaccines.

Influenza virus transmission, although vaccines have been developed, still remains of concern in crowded indoor conditions and can be affected by ventilation levels in the home.

Chemical air pollutants include environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), also known as ‘secondhand smoke’, is a product of combustion.

Q. How do common pollutants affect our health?

A. Common pollutants, such as pollen, originate from plants and can elicit symptoms such as sneezing, watery eyes, coughing, shortness of breath, dizziness, lethargy, fever and digestive problems.

Allergic reactions are the result of repeated exposure and immunologic sensitisation to particular biologic allergens.

Q. And effects of chemical air pollutants on our bodies?

A. Chemical air pollutants include environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), also known as ‘secondhand smoke’, is a product of combustion. The National Cancer Institute of USA states that ETS is the combination of two forms of smoke from burning tobacco products:

Side stream smoke, or smoke that is emitted between the puffs of a burning cigarette, pipe, or cigar; and Mainstream smoke, or the smoke that is exhaled by the smoker.

The physiologic effects of ETS are numerous. ETS can trigger asthma; irritate the eyes, nose and throat; and cause ear infections in children, respiratory illnesses, and lung cancer. ETS is believed to cause asthma by irritating chronically inflamed bronchial passages.

According to the Environment Protection Agency, ETS is a Group A carcinogen; thus, it is a known cause of cancer in humans. Laboratory analysis has revealed that ETS contains in excess of 4,000 substances, more than 60 of which cause cancer in humans or animals.

Q. As an eminent scholar of toxic substances what do you suggest as a long-term solution? Change of attitude by the public?

A. We must give up using plastic bags. Take your own reusable ones to the store. Skip using plastic straws. You could use paper ones. Stop using plastic bottles. Invest in a refillable water bottle. A handful of cities in the world have banned or partially banned bottled water. But around the world, nearly a million plastic beverage bottles are sold every minute. Avoid plastic packaging. Buy bar soap instead of liquid. Buy in bulk. Avoid produce sheathed in plastic. Give up plastic plates and cups.

Recycle what you can. Education and engagement can be part of a strategic action plan, and can include consumer awareness campaigns, business awareness campaigns, documentary films, school initiatives and clean up activities, among others.

Q. Your message on minimising risks of plastic toxicity?

A. We should create more public awareness. This can help to change the way that plastic is viewed, used and managed as waste. If the authorities aim to increase public understanding and shape community perceptions on the dangers of plastic pollution and available solutions, they will empower more people and organisations to take action.