ASU researcher explores perils of plastics

March 24, 2010

Plastics surround us. A vital manufacturing ingredient for nearly every existing industry, these materials appear in a high percentage of the products we use every day.

Although modern life would be hard to imagine without this versatile chemistry, products composed of plastics also have a dark side, due in part to the very characteristics that make them so desirable – their durability and longevity. Download Full Image

Now Rolf Halden, associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering at ASU and assistant director of Environmental Biotechnology at the Biodesign Institute, has undertaken a survey of existing scientific literature concerning the hazards of plastics to human health and to the ecosystems we depend on. His findings, which appear in latest issue of the Annual Review of Public Health, are sobering.

Today, plastics accumulate in garbage dumps and landfills and are sullying the world’s oceans in ever-greater quantity. And plastics and their additives aren’t just around us, they are inside virtually every one of us – present in our blood and urine in measureable amounts, ingested with the food we eat, the water we drink and from other sources.

Halden’s study reiterates the fact that the effects to the environment from plastic waste are acute. Measurements from the most contaminated regions of the world’s oceans show that the mass of plastics exceeds that of plankton sixfold. Patches of oceanic garbage – some as large as the state of Texas – hold a high volume of non-biodegradable plastics. Aquatic birds and fish are increasingly victims because biodegradation processes are inadequate to eliminate this durable refuse.

The magnitude of society’s burden of plastic waste is only beginning to be fully appreciated. In the United States, the average person produces a half-pound of plastic waste every day. Around the world, some 300 million tons of the material are produced each year – a figure poised to expand, as new forms of plastics are devised to serve a voracious global appetite. As Halden points out, this annual production alone would fill a series of train cars encircling the globe.

“We’re doomed to live with yesterday’s plastic pollution and we are exacerbating the situation with each day of unchanged behavior,” he said.

Adverse effects to human health remain a topic of fierce controversy, though a growing consensus is emerging that plastics and their additives are not always the benign companions we once assumed them to be. Halden said he accepted the invitation to write about plastics and human health “because the topic showcases the bigger problem of how to create a sustainable future for modern civilization.”

Two broad classes of plastic-related chemicals are of critical concern for human health – bisphenol-A or BPA, and additives used in the synthesis of plastics, which are known as phthalates. Halden explained that plastics are polymers – long chains of molecules usually made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and/or silicon, which are chemically linked together or polymerized. Different polymer chains can be used to create forms of plastics with unique and useful properties.
BPA is a basic building block of polycarbonate plastics, such as those used for bottled water, food packaging and other items. While it has been considered benign in the form of a heavily cross-linked polymer, its bonds can break down over time, when plastics are repeatedly washed, exposed to heat or other stresses, liberating the building blocks of the chemical, which are toxic. BPA has been recognized since the 1940s as an endocrine disrupting chemical that interferes with normal hormonal function.

Adding to the health risks associated with BPA is the fact that other ingredients, such as plasticizers, are commonly added to plastics. Many of these potentially toxic components also can leach out over time. Among the most common is a chemical known as di-ethylhexyl phthalate or DEHP. In some products, notably medical devices including IV bags or tubing, additives like DEHP can make up 40 or 50 percent of the product.

“If you’re in a hospital, hooked up to an IV drip, the chemical that oozes out goes directly into your bloodstream, with no opportunity for detoxification in the gut," Halden said. "This can lead to unhealthy exposure levels, particularly in susceptible populations such as newborns.”

What are the overall effects of the plastics we unwittingly ingest? The literature Halden surveyed is ambiguous on this point, despite more than half a century of study. Part of the difficulty lies in the absence of good controls for studying health outcomes, as plastic exposure is a global phenomenon, and finding unexposed subjects for comparison is nearly impossible. It is known however that health effects vary depending on who is exposed – and when. Infants and pregnant or nursing mothers are at heightened risk for toxic exposure or passage of BPA and additives like DEHP.

This January, the FDA announced an important reversal of its 2008 claims regarding the safety of bisphenol-A, expressing new concern about “potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children,” and pledging to collaborate with other federal health agencies to reevaluate the chemical’s safety.

Studying the effects of low-dose exposure is tricky, usually requiring a very large number of study subjects. Instead, epidemiologists tracking the problem frequently base their conclusions on data gathered from individuals known to have unusually high levels of a chemical – often the result of high-level occupational exposure. Halden insists that further study on low-dose exposure is essential to settle the matter of health risks, noting some evidence in the literature suggests that high-dose studies may be inadequate to properly understand toxic effects from continuous low-level exposures.

Halden explained that while plastics have legitimate uses of benefit to society, their brazen misuse has led to a radically unsustainable condition.

“Today, there’s a complete mismatch between the useful lifespan of the products we consume and their persistence in the environment,” he said.

Prominent examples of offending products are the ubiquitous throwaway water bottles, Teflon-coated dental floss and cotton swabs made with plastic PVC sticks. All are typically used for a matter of seconds or minutes, yet are essentially non-biodegradable and will persist in the environment, sometimes for millennia.

Despite the scourge of discarded plastics and the health risks these substances pose, Halden is optimistic that society can begin to make wiser choices and develop more sustainable products, formed from biodegradable, non-toxic chemical building blocks.

New forms of polymer, some made from renewable materials that are digestible by microorganisms, are being explored.
Ultimately, converting to petroleum-free construction materials for use in smart and sustainable plastics will become a necessity, driven not only by health and environmental concerns, but by the world’s steadily declining oil supply. As Halden emphasizes, the manufacture of plastics currently accounts for about 8 percent of the world’s petroleum use, a sizeable chunk, which ultimately contributes to another global concern – the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“We are at a critical juncture and cannot continue under the modus that has been established," Halden said. "If we’re smart, we’ll look for replacement materials, so that we don’t have this mismatch – good for a minute and contaminating for 10,000 years.”
Written by Richard Harth
Biodesign Institute Science Writer

Britt Lewis

Communications Specialist, ASU Library

'CRASH' explores nature of storytelling

March 24, 2010

The new work “CRASH” will be performed March 25-27 at Arizona State University’s West campus. “CRASH” is a solo stage performance and gallery installation created by New York-based theater artist Will Bond of the internationally renowned theatre company SITI, in collaboration with Judson Dance Theater pioneer Deborah Hay, SITI/Rude Mechanicals company member Brian H. Scott, and Marianne M. Kim, a faculty member in the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies (HArCS) in ASU’s New College.

“‘CRASH’” is as much a meditation on the urge to tell a story as it is a story told,” Kim said. Download Full Image

What began originally as a piece of theater written by Bond to be directed by Hay quickly metamorphosed into a larger dialogue about performance, storytelling, and the nature of the performer/audience relationship. Using text (some invented, some borrowed), movement and light, “CRASH” is a crisis of expression of a man both in the act of telling a story, and inhabiting a story himself.

“‘CRASH’ celebrates the ephemeral nature of performance, and the basic storytelling nature of human beings that binds us together, creates community, preserves memory, conveys wisdom and reminds us that we are not alone,” Kim said. “We share stories in real time and in the same undifferentiated space. ‘CRASH’ addresses the question, ‘What if how I see the space I am in, with you, is a means by which the story arises without my having to look for it?’”

Kim is a Korean-American artist and educator working in dance, theater and video art. Known for her work in Japanese Butoh and highly visual multimedia performance works, she has been produced throughout the United States and abroad. Zendai MOMA in Shanghai, Total Museum in Seoul, University of Alaska Anchorage, Mediations Biennial in Poznon, Poland and Arizona State University have presented her most recent interdisciplinary works. In 2009, she finished a national tour of “Saudade,” the newest work by choreographer David Rousseve. Kim is an assistant professor in the HArCS Division on ASU’s West campus.

Bond is a founding member of SITI Company. He has performed and toured nationally and internationally in numerous SITI productions. Bond also is an associate artist at Actors Theatre of Louisville and Artist-In-Residence in the theater department of Skidmore College.

Hay was one the founding members of the Judson Dance Theater in New York, and is acknowledged by critics and historians as one of the most relevant and influential representatives of post-modern dance. In 2000, she choreographed a duet for herself and Mikhail Baryshnikov, which toured with the Past/Forward project, a series of performances updating the choreographic scores of the Judson Group Theatre, among others.

Scott is a SITI Company member who has designed lighting for “Hotel Cassiopeia,” “systems/layers,” “Death and the Ploughman,” “War of the Worlds - The Radio Play” and “Midsummer Nights Dream” touring production.

“CRASH” is made possible in part by support from HArCS and the Rude Mechs Theater Company of Austin, Texas. The work is inspired by P. Henry Shields, by a previous work entitled “HISTORY OF THE WORLD FROM THE VERY BEGINNING,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, by Wim Wenders, and by Deborah Hay’s interest.

Performances are set for 7:30 p.m., March 25, 26 and 27 in Second Stage West, lower level of the University Center Building. ASU’s West campus is at 4701 W. Thunderbird Road in Phoenix.

Tickets are $10 general admission, $7 for seniors and ASU students and employees. Call (602) 543-ARTS (2787) for ticket information.