Examining plastic bags and public health

DOWNEY - The relationship between plastic carryout bags and human health is neither as thoroughly documented nor as conclusive as other public health issues, such as clean air, clean water, vaccinations, smoking or overeating.Though links to human health factors have been discovered in BPA, DEHP, DBP, and other acronym-ed chemical compounds used in the production of plastics, no definitive human health risks have been ascribed directly to plastic carryout bags. Likewise in the fresh water supply current testing does not even include analysis for plastic content. This writer recently attended a symposium on the health of the San Gabriel River watershed, which of course runs through Downey, and the closest test parameter to any analysis for plastic content was for PCB's, used primarily in industrial manufacturing, and banned since 1979, though they still appear in fish. It's a different story in the ocean, however, where in 1997 an amateur sailor from Long Beach made a spontaneous trip to the North Pacific Gyre --a mostly windless ocean vortex about 1,000 miles off the coast of California -- and discovered to his chagrin a collection of plastic flotsam hundreds of miles wide. This sailor, Captain Charles Moore, immediately devoted his life to researching the nature of what soon became known as the "North Pacific Garbage Patch." Much of this plastic is not on the surface, but has photo-degraded into small particles about the size of plankton down to depths of 100 feet or more, characterized by Captain Moore as a sort of "plastic soup." Estimates of the size of this body of water range as high as one and a half times the size of the continental United States. It continues to grow and has been encountered across the Pacific from as little as 500 miles off the coast of California to 200 miles off the coast of Japan. Eighty percent of this plastic pollution is land-based. Within the last two years similar accumulation of plastic has been discovered in the rest of the world's five ocean gyres. Marine animals ingest plastic all the way up through the food chain, and tens of thousands of sea creatures, including fish, birds, turtles (who think plastic bags are jellyfish), and even whales, have died from eating plastic. There is no cleanup solution, even if one were possible on this scale, that wouldn't also kill the marine life that's endangered. So the only way to begin to fix this problem is to vastly reduce the amount of plastic entering the ocean--on a global scale. Now we have a moral question of global proportion, regardless of whether or not it has a proven direct impact on human health, and overriding any convenience the plastic carryout bag may provide. The scale of this problem also brings us back to the question of government intervention and regulation, which we will investigate next week. made against the reusable grocery shopping bag, increasingly used as an alternative to plastic carryout bags. Many people think reusable shopping bags are dangerously unsafe, even after a single use. This claim is patently false, except in the most extreme cases of intentional or negligent misuse. Most of the press surrounding this issue has been generated by a single study paid for by the American Chemistry Council, an organization whose primary purpose is to promote the plastic bag manufacturing industry. This writer has read the report, and the testing methodology is so narrow and biased as to make a layman blush, much less a scientist. Consumer Reports scientists reviewed it, and concluded, "a person eating an average bag of salad greens gets more exposure to these bacteria than if they had licked the insides of the dirtiest bag from this study." Lars Clutterham is a Downey resident and charter member of the city of Downey's Green Task Force and Downey Chamber of Commerce's Green Committee.

********** Published: August 25, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 19