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Are Toxins in Plastics a Public Health Threat?

Plastics may contain harmful chemicals, but public health programs can help minimize risks.

Plastics have revolutionized how we live. They’re in our cars, our computers, our food packaging, our clothing. They keep our pans from sticking and keep our raincoats dry. But do all these positives come with a negative? Many health experts believe so.

The production of plastics uses a long list of chemicals that control everything from pliability to color. And these chemicals can be toxic. In the 1970s, the U.S. and other nations banned polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were used for plastics that needed to be heat- and/or acid-resistant. Exposure to PCBs can increase incidents of everything from skin lesions to liver damage,* necessitating their ban.

Are Toxins in Plastics a Public Health Threat?

More recently, several nations have banned bisphenol A (BPA) in children’s products. The chemical is used to create clear plastic, particularly bottles. Some evidence suggests BPA can release an estrogen-mimicking hormone, which can negatively impact our endocrine systems, although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration deems the chemical safe at the levels currently found in common plastics.

Clearly, there is some uncertainty around the toxicity of the chemicals used in plastics. That’s why experts like those at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggest that, at a minimum, we should reduce our exposure to BPA and other plastic-related chemicals that could be harmful to our health. If you’re concerned by the chemicals in plastics, here are some ways you can help reduce the potential risks they pose:

Keep plastic out of our oceans and waterways.

Plastics and their associated chemicals are not biodegradable. Which means, once we throw them away, they will stay around for a long, long time. While this can lead to the overuse of landfills, the much bigger problem is the plastic that ends up in our oceans, lakes, and rivers. Once plastic is in a body of water, it tends to break into smaller pieces, which marine life can then ingest. This exposes the marine life to the potentially toxic chemicals within the plastics. Adding to the problem, these chemicals can move up the food chain, accumulating at increasingly toxic levels and ultimately threatening entire marine biospheres.§ Long-term, plastics in our oceans and waterways could lead to large die-offs of marine life as well as marine life that is too toxic for human consumption.

You can help prevent plastic from entering our waters by being personally responsible with your plastic refuse and picking up other plastics you see, particularly on beaches and lakefronts. Additionally, you can avoid using plastic bags, which often blow into waterways, and avoid using products with microbeads, which are often used as exfoliates but can slip through water treatment facilities and be mistaken by marine life as food.


When you put plastic in your recycling bin rather than the trash, you’re keeping plastic out of the ecosystem and reducing the need for new plastic production. It’s one of the simplest steps you can take to decrease the amount of plastic in the world.

Reject the disposability culture.

One-use plastic containers and packaging may be convenient, but they leave us with a lot of plastic refuse. If you want to cut down on both your exposure to plastics and the amount of plastics in the world, you should do what you can to avoid disposable plastics. You can:

  • Use cloth bags for groceries.
  • Carry a reusable water bottle rather than buying disposable bottles of water.
  • Cook your own food to avoid plastic takeout containers.
  • Store leftovers in reusable containers rather than sealable plastic bags.
    • Compost waste instead of filling plastic trash bags.
    • Buy products stored in glass rather than in plastic.
    • Buy used goods to avoid the plastic packaging of new goods.

    Earn a public health degree.

    While individual actions can help to decrease the use and risks of plastics, if you want to make a lasting difference, you should work on becoming a leader in public health. Through policy making, advocacy, and/or public health education, you can help develop or promote public health programs that mitigate the potential risks of plastics and decrease plastic dependency on a large scale.

    Of course, before you begin—or advance—your public health career, you’ll likely want to enroll in a public health degree program. In particular, you should consider a public health PhD program. By earning a PhD in Public Health, you can gain the advanced knowledge you need to assess public health problems and develop workable solutions.

    Thanks to online learning, earning a PhD in Public Health is more convenient than ever before. Instead of trying to arrange your schedule so you can be at specific classes at specific times, an online PhD degree program lets you complete the majority of your coursework from home and on a schedule designed for those working full time or otherwise leading busy lives. By enrolling in an online public health degree program, you can take the first step toward becoming a leader in reducing the risks of plastics.

    Walden University is an accredited institution offering an online PhD in Public Health degree. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

    *Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) Toxicity. What Are Adverse Health Effects of PCB Exposure?, on the internet at

    †U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Bisphenol A (BPA): Use in Food Contact Application, on the internet at:

    ‡Harvard School of Public Health, Plastics: Danger Where We Least Expect It, on the internet at

    §U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Toxicological Threats of Plastic, on the internet at:

    Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,