America’s hidden pandemic, the chemicals in our food and water: Study finds microplastics are quietly costing US $250 billion a year in healthcare



By Cassidy Morrison Senior Health Reporter For Dailymail.Com

17:32 11 Jan 2024, updated 18:18 11 Jan 2024

  • Effects of the hormone-disrupting chemicals like PFAS cost US $250B in 2018 
  • Exposure to microplastics increases risks of fertility, heart, liver, kidney issues
  • READ MORE: Bottle of water contains 240,000 pieces of toxic nanoplastics



Microplastics including ‘forever chemicals’ are quietly causing a health crisis that costs the US a quarter of a trillion dollars every year, a study claims.

These tiny plastics, which are found in virtually all brands of bottled water as well as most of the food we eat, have been linked to a myriad of chronic health conditions including cancers, hormone imbalances, fertility problems, and heart disease.   

Researchers have not come up with a definitive number of how many people fall sick due to exposure because the chemicals are now so ubiquitous and tracing original exposure is extremely complex.

But some estimates say that plastics-related diseases kill more than a million people each year globally and experts believe the chemicals may be contributing to a mysterious rise in cancers in young people.

The new study, by New York University researchers, estimated that in 2018 alone, exposure to the microplastics cost the US healthcare system $289 billion.

For comparison, the entire Covid pandemic is estimated to have racked up around $203 billion in healthcare costs.  

PFAS, also known as forever chemicals, lurk in tap water. They are man-made plastics that seep into our water systems
Some of the diseases that long-term exposure to microplastics include gestational diabetes , obesity, cardiovascular diseases, fertility problems, liver disease, and breast cancer (stock image)

The New York team arrived at their massive figure using mathematical modelling. 

They fed old estimates for healthcare costs associated with individual plastics, as well as newer estimates on the number of diseases caused by contamination. 

The findings come on the heels of a scientific report which found that there is an average of 240,000 plastic particles – the tiniest microplastics – in a one-liter bottle of water.

Microplastics have also recently been found in 90 percent of Americans’ foods, even whole foods like chicken, fish and beef. 

America began using tiny plastics in the 20th century in virtually every manufacturing industry – from food packaging to kitchenware and clothes.

They are defined as plastic particles with dimensions of less than five millimeters, around the size of a sesame seed, but thousands are too small to see with the naked eye.

The chemicals enter the water system and food supply through stormwater runoff, fishing, cargo, and cruiseships, and the wearing down of household products that contain water-repellant properties such as nonstick cookware. 

When tiny plastics enter the body, can they become lodged in tissues and enter the bloodstream. Once there, they prompt widespread inflammation when the immune system recognizes it as a foreign invader. 

‘Gender-bending’ chemical in plastic bottles linked ADHD and autism 

Researchers from New Jersey found that children with autism are 10 percent less able to eliminate bisphenol A (BPA) from their bodies, while kids with ADHD are 17 percent less able to purge it. 

This inflammation can lead to tissue damage and inflammation in crucial organs such as the liver and the heart. Over time, microplastics accumulate in the body, compounding the damage to the point that it becomes irreversible and potentially deadly. 

The researchers from New York University investigated disease risks linked with some of the most prevalent microplastics that can leech into water and food.

They included polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), phthalates, bisphenols, and poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) using published studies on the chemicals.

To estimate costs associated with microplastics-linked diseases, the researchers first classified the uses of different plastics in everyday plastic items, solvents, flame retardants, and adhesives. 

Then, they calculated the proportion of diseases and disabilities that have been suggested to come as a result of using products with these microplastics in them. These calculations are known as plastic-related fractions (PRFs).

Scientists then multiplied the base estimate PRFs them by the estimates of disease burden and costs from published manuscripts and studies.

For example, they referred to a previous study of bisphenol A which estimated the overall cost of exposure to BPA to be $1.04 billion. NYU researchers reasoned that about 98 percent of BPA found is for plastics-related use.

They also assumed that the impact of BPA on health is directly proportional to the level of exposure to the chemical. 

So, in multiplying disease burden by a base estimate cost, the researchers concluded that the health-related burden of addressing BPA-linked diseases is nearly $1.02 billion annually. 

BPA is an ‘endocrine disruptor,’ meaning it can imitate the body’s hormones and interfere with the production of and response to natural hormones like estrogen. It has also been linked to low sperm counts and infertility in men, as well as breast and prostate cancer
In men, researchers looked at data from multiple animal and experimental studies and concluded it demonstrated strong evidence for negative effects on male reproductive health and exposure to EDCs
Some impacts in women from EDCs include early menopause, an increased risk of breast cancer, endometriosis, which can lead to infertility, and metabolic syndrome, which increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes

Some of the diseases that long-term exposure to microplastics include gestational diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, fertility problems, liver disease, and breast cancer.

Treating those diseases racks up major costs to consumers, hospitals, and insurance companies equating to billions of dollars every year, or roughly 1.2 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. 

In 2018 alone, the effects of the contaminants found in Americans’ food and water contributed to a minimum $226 billion in healthcare costs. 

Most of those costs – $161 billion – were associated with exposure to PBDEs.

About $67 billion in total spending was linked to phthalate exposure which has been linked to preterm birth, reproductive disorders such as low sperm count, and childhood obesity. 

PFAS, meanwhile, contributed to $22 billion in healthcare spending to address negative outcomes, including some cancers and kidney failure.

Dr Leonardo Trasande, a physician at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine and lead author of the study, said: ‘The diseases due to plastics run the entire life course from preterm birth to obesity, heart disease and cancers,’ which translates to massive life-long spending on care.

DEHP exposure, known to be linked with obesity, diabetes, and endometriosis in women, racked up $1.95 billion in costs. Two phthalates in particular, BBP and DBP, linked to male infertility, cost $3.14 billion.

The researchers argued that their findings are a rallying cry for a Global Plastics Treaty, an initiative years in the making to establish a framework for tackling plastics pollution and promoting the use of sustainable alternatives.

As they become more ubiquitous in our food and drinking water, microplastics are become more and more common in the environment, making them more likely to enter into the food and water supplies. 

There are hints that some foods contaminated with compounds such as endocrine-warping microplastics could be increasing risks of chronic diseases. 

Researchers recently found that foods laced with metals were linked to 6,000 cases of bladder and lung cancers. Arsenic, in particular, also contributed to 7,000 cases of skin cancer.

The amount of microplastics found at the bottom of oceans has tripled in 20 years. Once microplastics land on the seafloor, they no longer degrade, either due to a lack of erosion, oxygen or light. 

Michael Belliveau, co-author and Executive Director of Defend Our Health based in Portland, Maine, said: ‘This study shows that preventing plastic pollution can reduce the incidence of disease, disability and early death, and its attendant human suffering and health care costs.

‘Policymakers and market leaders must detoxify and slash the use of petrochemical plastics and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. We urge negotiators to finalize a Global Plastics Treaty that caps and reduces plastic production and eliminate EDCs as plastics additives.’

Their research was published in the Journal of the Endocrine Society.  



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