Anyone who reduces plastic consumption in everyday life is doing good for the environment – and demonstrably has fewer plastics in their blood. Even if scientists do not agree on where the limit lies: “The less, the better” everyone signs.
“Wow! I had not thought of that. I was a little afraid that the result wouldn’t be that good because I still need a little plastic. But it’s really surprisingly much less!”
What inspires Patrizia Birri so much is the result of four months of consciously avoiding plastic in everyday life. Especially on packaging that can release plasticizers such as phthalates into food.
Trigger: the Baden plastic experiment.
“Stop the plastic madness” was the motto at the plastic headquarters in the middle of Baden’s old town at the beginning of 2020. Installations, campaigns and events were used to draw attention to the immense environmental impact of plastic – and to the dangers to our health with a blood test.
Responsible for the medical experiment: the Baden family doctor Christoph Broens. He feared that there would be too much plastic in the form of plasticizers in the subjects’ blood. “There are about 6,000 plasticizers that don’t have to be declared. And we actually know very little about their effect, especially when combined.
Or as one participant put it: “It’s all so new… You have no idea what kind of bomb is ticking!”
Around 230 people had their blood drawn for analysis purposes. It was tested in a German laboratory for seven known plasticizers, including the well-known substance bisphenol A.
The result of Patrizia Birri’s first measurement: three of the seven values were above the limit defined in the experiment. A shock. “I was convinced that I had already been very careful with plastic before and I really wonder where these values come from.”
If we take plasticizers into our bodies through food, they could have a negative impact on our hormonal system – this is the suspicion. At least, large studies suggest that such substances could cause obesity, poorer sperm quality or breast cancer.
However, the direct connection is scientifically controversial and difficult to prove.
A second measurement a month later should have shown how consistently avoiding plastic as much as possible affects blood values. Would have. Because the coronavirus also put a big damper on the plastic experiment for the time being.
The second measurement took place three months later than planned. A little more than half of the test subjects came back to have the extent of the change since the first blood sample clarified. Patrizia Birris’ hope: “The values above 100 percent have hopefully fallen and the rest have also fallen.”
A few weeks later we were certain: Yes, the values are significantly lower. According to the German Laboratory, this happened to practically all participants.
Family doctor Christoph Broens draws a correspondingly positive assessment of the experiment he helped initiate – but also says that the measurements must be interpreted very carefully: “The exact connections need to be investigated further. A lot more people are needed to determine that.” But that couldn’t be the point of the plastic experiment.
“It’s about showing that you’re not just at the mercy of it. You can achieve something through changing behavior and taking personal responsibility.
Human toxicologist Martin Wilks can live with this statement. His everyday research work: the dangers of such substances for humans.
When asked by the SRF health magazine “Puls” to classify the plastic experiment, he also warns against reading too much into the blood values. Because the experiment is not comparable to established and scientific methods. It also creates the feeling of a general threatening situation that does not exist.
“The measured reduction does not mean that I was previously at risk and am no longer at risk. It just proves that I have changed my behavior.” This change in behavior will of course have an effect – but that does not mean that the risk potential was previously high.
For Patrizia Birri, the question of perceived and actual danger is the same. She can do without the plasticizers in her blood, and during the experiment she also found a new shopping routine: she became a regular customer of an “unpackaged store”.
Plastic only where it cannot be avoided. It should stay that way in the future.
«Dangerous or not? In humans the situation is unclear.”
Daniela Lager in a studio conversation with human toxicologist Lothar Aicher from the Swiss Center for Applied Human Toxicology at the University of Basel.
SRF: Even if the Baden experiment is not strictly scientific, the response shows that many people are not comfortable with all the plastic that we need and that there are actually traces of it in our bodies. As of today: Are substances such as plasticizers really harmless to health?
Lothar Aicher: We have known for a relatively long time that damage has been demonstrated in animal experiments, especially developmental disorders. The situation in humans is still unclear. But the mere fact that these substances have been classified as being of concern shows that animal testing gives enough reason to pursue it further.
So it’s not harmless. Are there limits that are often exceeded?
As I said: The damage was proven in animal experiments. Whether there is a risk to people depends on whether they are exposed to more than is permitted according to the applicable limit values. And the European Food Safety Authority says that we are on the safe side.
So in the vast majority of cases we are below the limits?
In the vast majority of cases we are clearly below the limit values.
But these limits have been lowered repeatedly in the past. Bisphenol A, for example, was previously considered to be safer than it is today. That’s something to think about, isn’t it?
I can understand that well. As a scientist, I view this rather positively because it shows that science is moving forward and such limit values are not set in stone. Instead, they are reconsidered at regular intervals. And when new scientific findings emerge, regulators also take the initiative and lower limit values. Or – as has already happened – products are banned or usage restrictions are imposed.
Like lead, for example.
Exactly. That’s a good example. Years ago it was not clear that this was relatively harmful for development.
That sounds a lot like research on living objects.
As a scientist, I see it a little differently. Our life expectancy is now higher than ever. And yet there is still some public opinion that we are exposed to more and more dangers and that the situation is actually getting worse instead of getting better. We are faced with a dilemma: we should provide more and more safety data on more and more existing and new products. We should cover more and more health aspects – but please do so without animal testing. Science is trying to master the balancing act, for example by inventing new tests that work on a cell basis or using computer-based systems to predict such risks.
Aren’t we waiting to approve such substances, for example in food packaging, until these tests have been carried out?
They have actually been tested. It’s not like that. The substances in circulation have been tested and have registration. There, too, we have learned something new in the past. Phtalates, for example, were often easy to use and then a registration requirement was introduced. Then you also had to justify whether the benefits of these substances outweigh the possible risk to humans. So you always weigh up the risks and benefits.
How do you go shopping? Do you fill the cart with all sorts of packaged foods without hesitation?
If I can avoid packaging, I try to do that. Often this isn’t possible, but I avoid packaging, especially when it comes to fresh fruit and vegetables.
For health reasons?
Not for health reasons, at least not primarily. But simply because I want to avoid waste.