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There Are Thousands More Toxic Chemicals in Plastic Than We Thought

You may already be trying to cut down on your plastic usage because the material doesn’t biodegrade and it can pollute the planet for hundreds of years. But there’s another reason you might want to stay away.

A new study finds that plastics release many more toxic chemicals throughout their life cycle than previously thought, posing significant risks to both people and the planet. Until now, only a small number of these chemicals have been properly studied. But the new paper published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology provides the most comprehensive database of chemicals in plastic, and offers a terrifying look into just how harmful the material may be.

The team of researchers, led by Stefanie Hellweg, a professor of ecological systems design at the Swiss university ETH Zurich, identified a whopping 10,500 chemicals in the plastics they studied. The team spent two and a half years studying a wide variety of plastic products, using scientific, regulatory, and industry databases to identify all the chemicals contained within them. They then cross-referenced these chemicals with scientific databases that identified whether the chemicals were hazardous, benign, or not adequately studied.

Of these chemicals, about a quarter—2,480—were “substances of potential concern,” which means there is some evidence to indicate they are harmful. In some cases, the chemicals are known to be toxic to aquatic life, cancer-causing, or damaging to specific organs. In others, the chemicals can accumulate in humans and animals, causing problems such as memory loss over time.

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