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Are plastics killing us?

Are plastics killing us?

Jumping into the future head first, blindfolded, handcuffed, and in darkness

Jumping into a dark hole, head first, blindfolded, handcuffed

Plastics have been a feature of our world since the time they started being produced on a large scale in the second half of the 20th century. They are another giant experiment that we are performing on ourselves. As usual, we are jumping into the future head first, without thinking of what we are doing. Image by Dall-E

If you are a scientist, you may like doing experiments on mice. Not so much if you are a mouse. And yet, we are going through a series of planet-wide experiments in which we are playing the role of mice. Right now, humankind is engaged in determining the value of the climate sensitivity factor, that is, how the temperature of the atmosphere reacts to the CO2 concentration. This attempt may kill us all, but on the other hand, that’s the normal destiny of laboratory mice.

But the climate is not the only experiment we are engaged in. Several others aim to test how humans react to chemicals not normally present in nature. One is plastics.

Plastic waste is normally seen as ugly and obnoxious but not really dangerous. It is supposed to be inert, and, indeed, it normally is. You may occasionally bite off a piece of plastic from a wrapper while eating a sandwich, but nothing bad will happen to you — not immediately, at least. But plastics are not as inert as they seem to be.

Plastics are carbon-based polymers made by assembling smaller molecules, “monomers,” to form chains; the result is a solid that’s normally stable. Chains can degrade, releasing the monomers, molecules that are not inert at all. In addition, plastics contain all sorts of additives. A few are inert fillers, but most are not.

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