Plastic pollution threatens not only the environment, but also our health and that of future generations. This page is part of our Plastics and the Environment series, a set of online resources on the plastics crisis, its impact on people and the environment, and international cooperation to address this global problem. They include resources and news from organizations in Geneva and beyond, including UN-system organizations and other IOs, governmental authorities, civil society organizations, academic institutions and journals, and renowned newspapers.

The world is facing a plastics crisis. Plastic pollution is found all around the globe. Plastics are negatively affecting people and the environment at each stage of their lifecycle – extraction of fossil fuel, production, manufacturing, use, recycling, and disposal. The impacts are felt in a wide range of areas, including on biodiversity, climate change, human health and human rights. This page focuses on the impacts of plastics and the chemicals they contain on human health.

World Health Assembly and Plastics

At the Seventy-sixth World Health Assembly (WHA76) taking place in Geneva from 21 to 30 May 2023, a resolution on the impact of chemicals, waste, and pollution on human health initially tabled by Peru, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Monaco, Switzerland, Uruguay, and the European Union and its Member States was adopted. The resolution, available on the WHA76 portal, includes notes and references to various ongoing negotiations as well as UN Environment Assembly and Human Rights Council resolutions. Among these, Plastic pollution and the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in charge of developing a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution. The resolutions requests to scaling-up work on plastics and health.

Plastics and Health at a Glance

Humans are exposed to a large variety of toxic chemicals and microplastics through inhalation, ingestion, and direct skin contact, all along the plastic lifecycle. According to WWF, an average person could be ingesting approximately 5 grams of plastic every week. While the health impacts of plastics is still a rather new research area, scientific results to-date do indicate plastic causes diseases, disability and premature death at very stage of its life cycle. The toxic chemical additives and pollutants found in plastics threaten human health on a global scale. Scientifically-proven health effects include causing cancer or changing hormone activity (known as endocrine disruption), which can lead to reproductive, growth, and cognitive impairment. Many of the toxic chemical additives have several other known health impacts, persist in the environment, and bioaccumulate in exposed organisms. Research also revealed that microplastics can harm our health, and act as vessels for pathogens to enter our system, increasing the spread of diseases.

Health impacts are also observed all along the plastic value chain. Examples include pollution at extraction sites, workers exposure to chemicals, air pollution from waste incineration, and water and soil contamination. Vulnerable groups, including children, women, workers in the informal waste sector and marginalized communities are particularly exposed, thus raising concerns of human rights and environmental injustice. The adverse effects of plastic are particularly acute children in the womb and young ones, with increased risks of prematurity, stillbirth, birth defects of the reproductive organs, neurodevelopmental impairment, impaired lung growth, and childhood cancer (Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Health, 2023).  Finally, plastics contribute to the numerous health risks associated with warming temperatures and extreme weather events due to climate change. The effects of plastic production on human health also have important monetary costs, recently estimated to more than $250 billion in 2015 globally and more than $920 billions in the USA alone for diseases and disability caused by the plastic-associated chemicals PBDE, BPA and DEHP.

General resources on the impacts of plastics on human health:

Exposure to Plastics

While scientific gaps remain on exact numbers, there is no doubt that humans are exposed to plastics through daily life products, plastic-based medical supplies, as well as through the food chain and airborne plastic pollution. Workers in the extraction, manufacture, transportation and waste sector and local communities where these activities are conducted are further exposed. Through these various pathways, we are exposed to microplastics and the chemical additives they contain. Recent studies have found microplastics in human blood, lungs, and placenta.  As 99% of plastics are created from chemicals of fossil origin, oil-associated toxicological short and long term health hazards from respiratory symptomps to adverse neurological effects, including stress and generalized anxiety disorder are part of the plastic value-chain.

Exposure pathways to plastics. Source: CIEL, 2019. Click to enlarge.

Health Risks of Microplastics

Micro- and nanoplastics in the human body may have harmful effects on health. The main microplastics exposure route for humans is ingestion, followed by inhalation and dermal exposure. Although there is no scientific certainty of the amount of plastics humans ingests, estimation guesses around 0.1–5 g/week, while inhalation can amount between 26 and 170 airborne MNPs of  per day and up to 22,000,000 micro- and nanoplastics inhaled by humans annually. Studies on animals indicate that plastic particles can cross the gut barrier and travel through the body. While this field of study is rather recent, recent studies have found a correlation between ppresence of microplastics in the human body and inflammatory bowel disease symptoms, respiratory complications among others which still require further study. Additionally, plastics increase disease risk by acting as a vessel for human pathogens which have a particularly strong bind to plastic waste.

Source: Breathing Plastic: The Health Impacts of Invisible Plastics in the Air | CIEL |  27 March 2023

Toxic Chemicals in Plastic

To date, it has been estimated that around 13,000 chemicals are used to make plastic, with the most commonly used being monomers, processing aids and additives. Out of those 13,000 chemicals, only  3,200 are verified to be chemicals of potential concern, while hazard data is missing for 6,000 chemicals, which can potentially be hazardous. A growing body of evidence points to the health risks posed by plastic additives. These include endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which are linked to infertility, obesity, diabetes, prostate or breast cancer, thyroid problems and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, among others. Other health conditions linked to additives include reproductive, growth, and cognitive impairment and neurodevelopment disorders.  The technical report Chemicals in Plastics released by UNEP and the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions Secretariat in May 2023, highlights how women and children are particularly susceptible to these toxic chemicals. Exposures can have severe or long-lasting adverse effects on several key period of a women’s life and may impact the next generations.

As hazardous chemicals can be released from plastics along the entire lifecycle, solutions must address all phases.

International Cooperation on Plastics and Health

Addressing plastic pollution is not only a environmental matter, but also about protecting human health from pollutants. Following the adoption of a landmark resolution to end plastic pollution at the UN Environment Assembly in March 2022, the process to develop a new treaty on the matter kicked off in 2022. The treaty could be an opportunity to better protect human health from the risks associated with plastics. The resources below present various initiatives in Geneva and beyond aimed at strengthening the links between plastics and health, and addressing the plastic crisis to protect human health.

More on the Plastics Crisis

Our special series “Plastics and the Environment” provides resources on the status of the global plastic pollution, its impact on people and the environment, and international cooperation to address the plastics crisis.