Connexion: Limit plastics to reduce threat of cancer

Any political party contesting in Perak ought to have a manifesto that reflects the environmental concerns expressed by Sultan Nazrin Shah. Opening the first meeting of the fifth session of the 14th Perak state legislative assembly last March, the Sultan of Perak said: “Lately, natural disasters that have been occurring with increasing frequency should be regarded as divine censure of our misbehaviour, turning nature against us.”

Sultan Nazrin Shah pointed out that Malaysia is the second-highest user of plastic in Asia at 69.54kg per capita, and discards more than 30,000 tons of plastic into the seas every year. “Malaysians are sorely lacking in awareness, indifferent to the pollution hazards of plastic that can poison food and the environment. The public needs to be made aware of plastic pollution,” the Sultan advised.

From the lowest depths of the ocean to the topmost layer of the atmosphere, plastic is now everywhere on the planet. In Malaysia, the man-made 3-hectare Pulau Gazumbo off Penang Bridge came to symbolise the nation’s plastic waste accumulation, until 80 volunteers cleared it of almost 800kg of garbage early this month.

Three years ago, WWF International, in reporting that more than 300 million tonnes of plastic end up as waste every year, said humans are breathing, eating, and drinking in thousands of plastic microparticles annually.

These microplastics aren’t just passing through our bodies; they stay put as new residents. Just four days before Sultan Nazrin’s address to the legislative assembly on March 28, Environment International journal published evidence that microplastics had been found in the blood of 17 healthy adults who were part of a sample population of 22. Exposure to plastic particles results in their absorption into the bloodstream.

Are these plastic particles merely swimming in your blood like fish? No, just three months ago in July the Laboratory of Microbial Oceanography in France reported that microplastics had been detected in the lungs, spleen, kidneys, and even the placenta with grave consequences for development of the foetus.

Is there a causal link between organ dysfunction and the presence of microplastics in our organs? No link has yet been established, but there is also no evidence to dismiss the possibility that such a link exists. Malaysian doctors are particularly interested to know if there is a link to colon cancer because this type of cancer is the second largest cancer killer in Malaysia, and its causes remain unknown.

There is suspicion of a link to cancer as Malaysia’s previous 5-year cancer statistics show an 11% rise when comparing 2012-2016 total against 2007-2011 total. In the period 2012 to 2016, the average number of cases per year was 23,047. In 2020, the number of cancer cases was 48,639 — a truly massive jump. It is also estimated that 10% of Malaysians will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes.

What are the risks of a plastic-induced health breakdown? There are three potential hazards: the first is damage to organs and tissues causing inflammation; the second is the leaching out of toxic chemicals used in the manufacture of plastic products; the third is that pathogenic microbes grow well on the surface of plastic particles.

Four years after the launch of Malaysia’s Roadmap Towards Zero Single Use Plastics 2018-2030, the use of plastic bags, plastic food containers, plastic cutlery, plastic cups, plastic water bottles, and plastic straws for drinks has not declined.

A 2020 report by the World Wildlife Fund ranked Malaysians as the biggest individual consumers of plastic packaging.  In terms of annual per-capita plastic packaging consumption, Malaysians consumed about 16.8 kg per person. The nation’s failure to reduce plastics usage stems from a lack of commitment and the adoption of clownish measures such as charging shoppers 20 sen for a plastic bag at the payment counter.

Do you want to take chances with cancer? If not, demand that the new government after general elections impose a total ban on single-use plastics by the year 2030. The alternative to plastic is paper made from industrial wood. In the 1960s, everyone used paper bags made from timber cut from the forests. To save the forests, Malaysia went paperless and switched to plastic. The consequences on the environment and health are worse.

The solution is to convert hectares of idle lallang-and-bush plots into industrial tree farms, similar to plantations. These specially cultivated trees mature fast with high yields of timber that can be used to manufacture bags, containers, cutlery, straws, cups, and building materials. What is stopping us from doing so is the lack of political will, lack of effort in R & D, sheer inertia, and lack of public action.

Paperless advocates are also to blame for tarnishing the use of paper without discriminating between jungle trees and industrial trees. Jungle trees are natural, industrial trees are commercial. Jungle trees will be protected if loggers are made to turn all their attention towards industrial trees.

But the most overlooked source of health danger is the clothing that we put on, the bedsheets we use, the curtains that we hang up, and the towels in our bathrooms. What are they made of? Synthetic fabrics have climbed in popularity with nylon, polyester, acrylic, spandex, olefin, acetate, and neoprene among the top. These man-made fibres created from petrochemicals are driving cotton off half the garment shelves.

Microfibres — part of the large collection of microplastics —are discharged into the drainage system when we do the laundry, and they end up in rivers and oceans where they are consumed by plankton and work their way up the food chain into the digestive tracts of fish and animals that are eaten by humans. Microplastic particles also turn up in taps and hence the water we drink.

It is time for a reversion to cotton and other natural fibres as they are more comfortable to wear besides their environment-friendliness. Cotton is soft, cool, breathable, sweat absorbent, non-toxic and biodegradable. Linen is another natural eco-friendly fibre that is stronger and more durable than cotton, hence making it suitable as material for towels, tablecloths, napkins, and bedsheets.

Cotton gave way to plastics because it is costlier. But as cotton can also be grown in Southeast Asia, a 3-pronged approach can be deployed to bring down the price: incentivise local farmers to grow this non-food crop, provide tax relief for imported garments and cloths made of 100% cotton or other natural fabrics, impose a 20:80 percent synthetic fibre to natural fibre mixture in garments and disallow higher mixtures.

by Joachim Ng


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ipoh Echo

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