Rick Smith, executive director of the Broadbent Institute, is the co-author of two books on the human health effects of pollution.
In the hierarchy of human needs, good health is right at the top. There’s a reason we say, “to your health”, “slainte” or “santé” – whenever we clink glasses: It’s what we fervently wish for ourselves and those we care about.
In the complicated world of politics, therefore, with myriad competing issues coming at us 24 hours a day, it’s not surprising that concerns clearly relevant to our health and that of our families regularly rise to the top of our society’s priority list.
The effect of plastic on our health should be at the top of that list today.
As Bruce Lourie and I explain in our book Slow Death by Rubber Duck, once an issue transforms into a human health concern, it becomes far more likely to be taken up by our elected leaders, noticed by the general public and consequently solved. Conversely, when an issue cannot be convincingly linked to a proximate human health concern, it will often be consigned to that place where good, but less than urgent, ideas go to die.
The smoking debate followed this trajectory. Once the focus became the damaging effects of second-hand smoke, i.e., it’s not just the health of smokers at risk but of all those around them, the momentum for change became impossible for even the most recalcitrant cigarette companies to resist.
The global movement to shut down coal-fired electricity generating stations, including in Canada, is an inexorable force. Why? Not so much because of arguments related to coal’s contribution to global warming, but rather because of coal-burning’s role in creating smog in cities, with all the asthma-triggering damage that ensues. Doctors and nurses are hell-bent to shut down coal plants to save the lives of their patients. No sane politician is going to stand in their way.
The change in the coal situation from being an intangible pollution problem to a pressing human health issue was a game changer. This same phenomenon occurred with toxic chemicals beginning in the early 2000s, when it was revealed that chemicals previously thought to be benign ingredients of common consumer products were in fact being absorbed by the human body and showing up in increasing levels in umbilical cord blood and breast milk. This health bombshell is what lead the generally un-green government of Stephen Harper to ban BPA in baby bottles.
What we are witnessing now is the genesis of another human health problem that I believe has the potential to dominate public debate over the next decade: the discovery that tiny plastic particles are permeating every human on earth.
Plastic, it turns out, never really disappears. In response to time and sunlight, or the action of waves, it just gets mushed into smaller and smaller bits. These microscopic particles then enter the food chain, air and soil. In the past couple of years, scientists have started to find these particles in an astonishing range of products including table salt and honey, bottled and tap water, shellfish and … beer. In one recent study, 83 per cent of tap water in seven countries was found to contain plastic micro-fibres.
When the snow melts in Canada to reveal a winter’s worth of Tim Hortons cups and lids, every person in this country notices the plastic litter that surrounds us. Many of us know of the vast and accumulating patches of garbage in the ocean. I hear shoppers in the produce aisles of my local grocery store grumbling at the increasing size of the plastic that encases the organic arugula.
None of this, really, matters much. Do I care that sea turtles are choking to death on the plastic grocery bags I use every day? Sort of. But certainly not enough to inconvenience myself.
But if it turns out that my two boys have a dramatically increased chance of contracting prostate cancer because of all the plastic particles that are embedded in their growing bodies, now you’ve got my attention. Make it stop, please.
Forget recycling. We can’t recycle ourselves out of this problem. The issue is our society’s addiction to plastic itself. Those plastic micro-fibres I mentioned? Scientists are now saying that one of the primary sources in our drinking water is the lint that comes off the synthetic fabric of our clothing. It’s not just the plastic we’re throwing away that’s the problem; it’s the plastic items we surround ourselves with every day.
The new science on plastic micro-particles is stunning and I’m guessing only the tip of a toxic iceberg. The good news? The vast quantities of plastic crap in our lives is a recent phenomenon, so we know that other habits, other packaging and other materials are possible.
This Earth Day, it’s time to get back to basics. It’s time to kill plastic to save ourselves.