Humans have created enough plastic to make land mass equal to what’s already on the planet. Much of it is floating in the oceans, possibly forming into new continents as you read this. But the effects, including notably high levels of estrogen in the environment, are challenging the survival of all life forms.
The human body is little more than a vessel operated by a number of hormones. Chemicals including estrogen send signals through the body helping organs function properly, encouraging development, sexual maturity and even influencing our moods and personality. We are little more than fleshy, uninteresting blobs without these chemicals.
“Foreign” estrogens, also called xenoestrogens, come by way of environmental chemicals, including those found in many types of plastics, detergents, heavy metals and pesticides. When the body is exposed to estrogen in the environment, it can interfere with its ability to produce and regulate its own hormone levels. Our body treats this chemical exposure kind of like how most people treat staying at a hotel. Most people don’t clean up after themselves because they know someone else is going to do it anyway. When the body is exposed to foreign estrogen, it stops producing and regulating its own hormones.
Estrogen dominance, a condition where women who have been exposed to endocrine disruptors can produce too much estrogen and not enough progesterone, can wreak havoc on reproductive systems. Symptoms can include early onset of the menstrual cycle in girls age ten and younger. It can also create issues with the female reproductive system including infertility and certain types of cancer.
Men are also at risk from the effects of environmental estrogens including an increased risk of developing prostate cancer, penis deformities (when exposed in utero), and infertility. “Man boobs” can often be a result of this exposure, too, as can breast cancer in men.
In the environment we see the effects of copious amounts of plastic in our oceans sterilizing fish populations, turning frogs from one gender to another, killing birds and marine mammals. Many are born with deformities and health complications that have scientists suggesting the risks to humans may be even greater than previously believed.
Limiting exposure to known contaminants can decrease the risks. Cutting out plastic water bottles, baby toys and pesticide-treated foods can have a significant impact on the body’s ability to handle environmental estrogen. But the risks don’t disappear completely, particularly if you live in an urban environment where the air and water are more likely to include traces of endocrine disruptors.
Recent research noted increased health risks from low-dose exposure versus high levels of chemicals, confounding the situation even further. Around the world, countries are enacting tighter regulations on chemicals like BPA and industrial pollutions that leach hormone disruptors into the environment. But just like the amount of plastic in our oceans may be forming new continents, the chemicals may be also forming new life–creatures as dependent on environmental hormones for developmental cues as they were once dependent on their own bodies to make them–people with plastic hormones.
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Image: Il Giglio Bianco