Fri, Jul 27, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Plastic straws are a health hazard

By Wong Ruey-hong 翁瑞宏

In the first installment of the animated movie franchise Toy Story, a sign on Buzz Lightyear’s arm shows that he is “made in Taiwan.” Some people consider this to be the pride of Taiwan, while others disagree.

In the past, official inspection reports of toys made in Taiwan, whether for export or for domestic sales, often showed excessive amounts of plasticizer and heavy metals.

Taiwan is a major toy exporter as well as a major manufacturer of plastic products. Plastic is a polymer and can be molded into any shape.

Humanity has a long history of using natural polymers, but it was not until the beginning of last century that the US started to extract phenols from coal tar to produce synthetic plastics, thus opening the world up to the age of massive plastics consumption.

Having built factories that process crude oil and turn it into plastic materials, petrochemical businesses started to promote plastic products for the mass market, such as plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

Soon after polypropylene (PP) was polymerized in 1954, the material was quickly applied to manufacturing drinking straws to replace grass and paper straws.

With plastic straws making people’s daily lives more convenient, manufacturers also came up with many interesting shapes and functions for straws, thus facilitating a drastic increase in the use of disposable utensils.

The Environmental Protection Administration estimates that Taiwan uses as many as 3 billion plastic straws each year, making it the third-largest user in the world.

The massive amount of plastic straws discarded every day has made waste treatment increasingly difficult. Only a small number of single-use plastic straws are incinerated, while the majority remain in the environment and cause the biomagnification of toxicity at the top of the ecological chain, posing a big threat to marine creatures.

Considering that incinerators are the main facilities for waste treatment today, how to reduce their burden is a major question.

While there is a lot of room for improvement in the nation’s garbage sorting and recycling mechanism to help reduce the amount of waste that is incinerated, it is relatively difficult to sort plastic straws, as they are small in size.

Therefore, banning single-use plastic straws is a concrete way to not only reduce waste, but also the pollutants emitted by incinerators.

Health authorities conduct random health safety checks on plastic straws, including examinations of the material and solubility tests of colorants and plasticizers. Even though most manufacturers comply with regulations, the potential health impact of plastic straws on public health cannot be ignored.

Plastic straws are mostly used for drinking. Most straws are made of PP, but some are made of other plastics. When the beverage is too hot or acidic, plastic straws could yield PP and plasticizers, which — once consumed by humans — interfere with the endocrine system in a way similar to hormones. This is why plasticizers are called environmental hormones.

Studies have shown that the plasticizer concentration found in pregnant women in Taiwan is higher than it is in other nations. The higher concentration causes an abnormal secretion of thyroid hormones in pregnant women and affects the development of the infant’s central nervous system.

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