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Plastics added $250 billion to U.S. health costs in 2018?

In 2018 global plastics production was valued at $712 billion according to Statistica. Let's conservatively assume that the U.S. accounted for one-third of resin production, translating to a value of around $240 billion. Compare this value with the $250 billion cited in a study sponsored by National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and The Passport Foundation reported to be the estimated increased in healthcare costs in 2018 caused by Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in plastics. Can it be that the damage to human health caused by plastics outweighs their production value?

The research published in the Journal of the Endocrine Society can be found here. What is important to note is that, like many other "scientific studies," a fair amount of "non-traditional plastics" are lumped in with what one normally considers to be conventional plastics, which are molded into shape using processes such as injection molding, blow molding and film extrusion. For instance, the "Chemicals Used in Plastic Materials: An Estimate of the Attributable Disease Burden and Costs in the United States" research includes:

  • Paints and adhesives if they are used in combination with plastics

  • Synthetic rubbers

  • Fluoropolymer dispersions

  • Synthetic fibers

  • Surface treatment of synthetic fibers and automobile interiors

  • Use of perfluorooctane sulfate acid (PFOS) in various applications including some that are plastics-related, although it's not immediately obvious from the list of applications (such as mining and oil well surfactants, acid mist suppressants for metal plating, electronic etching baths, photolithography, and insecticide in bait stations), which ones are plastics-related (unless you agree with the authors that floor polishes are polymeric!).

The authors have attempted to identify and calculate plastic-related fractions (PRF) for chemicals with multiple uses. An example is shown below. You can see that under "Other Performance Chemicals," the PRF is estimated at 50% although all the applications for PFOS appear to be non-plastics ones. The authors seem to have arbitrarily adopted 50%, with sensitivity analyses adopting a 25% to 75% range, as they "could not quantify more accurately the percentage of PFOS use for plastic in the categories of surface treatments, paper protection, and other performance chemicals."

In summary, undoubtedly many, if not all, of the chemicals identified in the study can be harmful to human life but it is disingenuous to lump everything into the plastics bucket, including floor polishes, caulks and sealants, fiber surface treatments, grouting agents, and paints, as happens all too often, because the average consumer does not typically associate these with plastics.

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