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Perishable: Plastic, Healthcare, and People

Perishable: Plastic, Healthcare, and People

Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania

September 14, 2023


What environmentalists once regarded as a "litter crisis" is turning rapidly into a health crisis, as investigators examine the impacts of plastics under a microscope, and also begin to quantify the health effects of extraction and production of what are, at base, highly chemical materials. On examination, what has long been touted as a convenient and inexpensive material is in fact associated with a significant and costly burden of disease. Many of the chemicals used to manufacture plastics are carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and neurotoxicants. An even greater number are unstudied and their effects are unknown -- though it is becoming increasingly clear that the microplastics that linger in the human body can provide an ongoing source of exposure. Briefly, Wolff will review a few of the recommendations of the report, including a reduction in the production of single use plastics and chemical reformulation to remove known toxicants from the production process.

To demonstrate further approaches to plastics reduction and the interaction of plastics on health, Hixson will then present a brief background on the British National Health Service and its net zero goals. A significant percentage of items utilized in healthcare settings are single use and cannot be recycled, making reduction essential. Philosophically, this could be underscored by the Hippocratic imperative to first, do no harm, as the negative health impacts of plastics on communities and ecosystems are coming to outweigh their convenience. Hixson will discuss how healthcare settings came to be so dependent on single use plastics in the first place, and then provide examples of some of the myriad approaches to reducing them. From the growing "gloves off" campaign to innovative new types of plastic that are less toxic and plausibly compostable, there are numerous solutions already close to hand. At the NHS, the concentrated purchasing power of a single payer system can help to push these changes along. In the United States, progress may be made through a combination of education and economics. Pennsylvania, with its tight conglomeration of healthcare systems and concentrated economic power, may in fact be in a position to take the lead.

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