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A baby whale washed up on a beach in the Pacific. Dead. Eighty-eight pounds of plastics were found in its stomach, strangling its digestive system.

Two hundred fifty-nine brands of bottled water were tested. Only 17 were found to be free of microscopic plastic particles. Is this a problem?

The plastic blob floating in the Pacific Ocean is 1.5 times the size of Texas.

What exactly are plastics? Why should folks in Western North Carolina care about this at all?

They are part of our every moment at home, shopping, school, driving a car, and they are an enormous part of our economy. All plastics are created from crude oil in the giant ‘cracking towers’ of refineries. They are processed into millions of items in factories all over the world.

They are being dumped by the millions of tons into our oceans, soil and air. If current trends continue, plastics production will consume 20% to to 30% of all the oil and gas the world produces. Their increasing production will release hundreds of millions of tons of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, worsening extreme weather events here in North Carolina.

A problem with plastics is that they don’t break down (decompose), like wood or corn stalks. Plastics break up into smaller and smaller particles that stay around for hundreds and even thousands of years. They spread out into in the air, seas and land. We now find microplastics in the six-mile-deep Marianas Trench in the Pacific, and on the frozen peak of Mount Everest.

Let’s look at just two of the most familiar plastic items, and why we should be very worried about our everyday exposure to their chemical components.

In the U.S., we use about 400 million plastic shopping bags a day. The average American family uses about 1,500 bags a year. In Denmark, the average family uses four bags a year. These bags break down in a few years into micro-plastic particles.

We in the U.S. use about 300 million plastic bottles a day. They, too, break down into microplastic particles.

Less than 10% of all this plastic is recycled. The rest goes into the giant waste bin called Earth.

Well, it’s smelly and ugly, but is it really bad for us?An in-depth analysis of what plastics are doing to our planet and to our bodies was presented on PBS. It posed questions such as, “Can we live in a world where by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish?” Answer: Not well. Sea plants (algae, seaweed, etc.) account for over 50% of this planet’s oxygen supply — the air you and I breathe.

Chemicals found in plastic items or used in manufacturing pose a serious concern for human health.

Leading the list are the phthalates. These are the chemicals that make plastics flexible and thin. It is now virtually certain that these chemicals cause serious effects on human and animal reproduction. Female infertility, gestational diabetes and increased miscarriages were noted in animal and human studies. Miscarriages in the U.S. are now around 30% of pregnancies and increasing yearly.

BPA is another component of the plastics industry. It gives plastics stiffness, as in water bottles. BPA is banned in baby bottles but still widely used. BPA mimics the action of the female hormone estrogen. A number of studies show that exposure can lower sperm counts and cause fetal abnormalities.

Sperm counts in U.S. men have declined over 30% over the past few decades. There may be many contributing factors, including obesity and stress. Plastics exposure may be a major factor. Find studies here that are quite disturbing:, and

So what can we do?Instead of going home from the grocery store with 12 plastic bags that will be used once for 12 minutes (the actual average), try using four to five cloth grocery sacks. Ask your grocery managers if in the long run it would be cheaper and better for our community if they gave everyone cloth grocery sacks that can be washed and reused for years instead of buying thousands of bags that end up in the landfill, or floating into streams.

Instead of spending hundreds of dollars a year on plastic water bottles that harm the environment and your health, use BPA-free bottles and drink tap water. If your water has a chemical taste, get a filter and keep a pitcher or two in the fridge. You also can squeeze a few drops of lemon juice into a pitcher and take that chemical taste out. You’ll save a lot of money. Will it make a difference for our world?

Canada and many European countries are already heading in that direction:

Can we do it here? Of course. It’s a matter of dropping a very bad habit. For more help, see this article by Judy Covin: “Say No to Plastic Bags,” The Mountaineer online

Steve Wall, WNC CAC co-founding member, is a retired pediatrician. He has lived in WNC over three

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