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Plastics, pregnancy and precaution

02 January 2017
Volume 25 · Issue 1


The precautionary principle advocates avoiding potential risks even in the absence of clear evidence of cause and effect. George Winter explores how this relates to pregnant women using everyday items.

In 1967's The Graduate, Mr McGuire advises Dustin Hoffman's character Benjamin on career prospects: ‘I just want to say one word to you. Just one word… Plastics.’ McGuire was right; Wilcox et al (2015) demonstrated that global production of plastic has doubled every 11 years since the 1950s, and up to 580 000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre now pollute the world's oceans. So it's unsurprising that we humans host a diversity of plastic-related compounds, the health effects of which are keenly debated, often in the context of the precautionary principle (PP). According to a consensus statement from the Science and Environmental Health Network (1998): ‘When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.’

Let's consider bisphenol A (BPA), which is used in food and drink cans, bottles and clear food packaging. Although typically consumed by ingestion, it can be absorbed through the skin or by inhaling dust. BPA is also an endocrine disruptor, mimicking oestrogen, and ‘has been linked to cancer, neuron damage, behavioural problems, and stunted health development in children’ (Turnage, 2013: 32). The French Agency for Food, Environment and Occupational Health & Safety investigated exposure to BPA, finding concerns ‘strong enough to encourage “pregnant women working as cashiers” to be careful’ when touching receipts (Turnage, 2013: 32).

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