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The life cycle of plastic bags and other plastics which become “fugitive” in our environment threatens public health. Plastic does not biodegrade in the environment. Instead, it photo-degrades (breaks down from exposure to sunlight), oxidizes and physically breaks down from wave action. This creates increasingly smaller particles of plastic which absorb pollutants from surrounding water (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2011; O'Brine and Thompson, 2010). Because plastics are buoyant, they are carried long distances by marine currents. Plastic particles have been found to transport pollutants to such distant locations as the Arctic and presents the opportunity for bioaccumulation in geographically distant food chains (Zarfl and Matthies, 2010).
Plastic particles concentrate metals, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and persistent organic pollutants, including PCBs flame retardants. Small plastic particles in the ocean have contained concentrations of PCBs more than 1,000,000 times greater than the surrounding water. When eaten by marine species, especially plankton, these pollutants enter the marine food web. The bioaccumulation of toxics in marine predators and commercially valuable species has far-reaching effects on human health (Andrady, 2011; Betts, 2008; Cole et al., 2011; Derriak, 2002; Moore et al., 2001; Moore, 2008; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2011; United Nations Environment Programme, 2009; Zarfl and Matthies, 2010).
Despite these risks, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not yet monitor for many of the toxins that could be found in fish and shellfish. Fish consumption advisories for commercial seafood are sometimes based on samples taken many years ago, well before plastic particles became recognized by the scientific community as a problem (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2011; U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2012). In addition, many of the microbes that are found to accumulate on plastic particles have not yet even been identified by science (Lippsett, 2012).
In addition to the secondary health impacts of plastics that contaminate seafood, the manufacturing to production to disposing of “single-use plastics” causes many health problems from respiratory illness to carcinogens. As a large proportion of plastic bag manufacture relies on hydraulically-fractured natural gas, plastics use is linked to the environmental impacts of fracking (True, 2012). Due to a loophole in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, fracking is currently exempt from numerous environmental protection laws, including the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Geological Survey and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are only recently investigating the health and environmental impacts of fracking.
A little-studied health impact of plastic bags involves the visual, psychological, emotional and health effects of plastics in our air, water and soil.