A growing awareness of — and anxiety over — the plastic pollution crisis has prompted many attempts at solutions: educational campaigns, global movements, bans and phase-outs (of bottles, bags and straws), and the rise of new products like shampoo bars, all of which try to tackle the problem of where plastic goes when we toss it.

But what about the effects of plastic before it ends up discarded? 

“Plastic affects human health at literally every single stage of its life cycle,” says Beyond Plastics Communications Director Melissa Valliant. “Mostly we hear about plastic pollution with post-consumer use… But production greatly affects human health, and it typically affects low-income communities and communities of color even more so than the rest of the population. That is because the plastic production facilities are typically built in those environmental justice areas — and it’s intentional, as they know these communities have fewer resources and less power to fight back.”

Valliant notes that plastic, which is mostly made from fossil-fuel sources including crude oil and natural gas that get synthesized into polymers, has four stages in a lifecycle: extraction and transport, refining and manufacture, consumer product and packaging, and “what most of us noticeably interact with,” waste management.

The trouble starts right from the get-go, with extraction, as 99% of plastic comes from fossil fuels. “It’s why the climate crisis and the plastic crisis are so inextricably linked — and why they are one and the same,” she says, noting that when oil and gas are extracted, the process releases “a cocktail of toxic substances into air and water,” including roughly 170 chemicals from fracking (for natural gas), that are linked to serious human health problems, from cancer to infertility.

The presence of toxins doesn’t stop there, as plastics are comprised not only of a fossil-fuel-based polymer, but thousands of additional, integral chemicals added for qualities including color, flexibility, and flame retardation — many of which are highly toxic, according to a 2023 report from the Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health. Those chemicals, according to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in March 2024, and the “explosive growth” of the petrochemical industry, are tied to an alarming rise in neurodevelopmental issues, hormone disruption, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and certain cancers in young people.

Below are five examples of communities that are being negatively affected by at least one stage of plastic’s life cycle.

Nigeria’s Niger Delta
Life cycle stage: Extraction

View of oil production in Niger Delta, Nigeria, burning gas flare at Nembe Creek, Friday, Oct. 6, 2017.
Image: Sara Leigh Lewis / ©Wikimedia Commons

The Niger Delta, a 27,000-square-mile region encompassing nine coastal states in the south of Nigeria, is Africa’s top oil producer — and, according to Amnesty International, “one of the most polluted places on earth.” That’s due to repeated oil spills — more than 55 over the past dozen years — prompted by poorly maintained infrastructure, leaks at well heads, and theft and vandalism, plus a lack of cleanup by the responsible companies (such as Shell and ExxonMobil). It’s led to destruction, disease, and death, including of infants, who are, according to one study, twice as likely to die in their first month of life if their mothers live near an oil spill.

The spills have also tainted groundwater with chemical and heavy metals, which, notes another study, can lead to anemia, kidney failure, neurological impairments, liver cancer, cardiovascular disease and other problems. More research, from the state of Bayelsa, discovered extremely high levels of toxic chemicals not only in soil, water, and air, but in crops and animals eaten by locals — plus high levels of lead, nickel, and cadmium in blood and tissue samples from 1,600 state residents.

Activists have been fighting back through organizations including the NGO Environmental Rights Action, which aims to hold corporations accountable, and through thousands of lawsuits, including by over 11,000 residents of rural Ogale in 2023.

“As we speak,” King Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi, leader of the Ogale community, told the Intercept, “oil is spilling in my community every day, people are dying.” Noted another community leader, speaking with Al Jazeera during a series of 2021 oil-spill protests in Lagos: “We want the world to hear our cry that we are on the verge of extinction.”

East Palestine, Ohio
Life cycle stage: Transport

This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio are still on fire at mid-day Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023.
Image: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

It was just over a year ago, in February 2023, that yet another hazardous stage of plastic production was thrown into high relief: with the derailment of Northern Suffolk freight train, carrying a range of toxic chemicals including Isobutylene and Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), both used in the manufacture of plastics. Officials intentionally released the PVC and burned it, to prevent an explosion. For folks living not only in the town of East Palestine but along the Ohio River and farther north, that’s proven disastrous.

A year later, many residents still have rashes, headaches, or respiratory problems. A loose coalition of local activists, including the Black Appalachian Coalition, organizer Jami Wallace, and Jess Conrad, who recently joined Beyond Plastics as Appalachia Director, are working to hold Northern Suffolk accountable.

A decade earlier, in 2013, a similarly high-profile derailment — now the subject of a documentary — took place in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. In one of the worst rail disasters in Canada’s history, the train’s 1.5 million gallons of crude oil were ignited, killing 47 people.

"Trains used to carry life," Robert Bellefleur, a resident of Lac-Mégantic, told the CBC recently. "But what we've got on the tracks today are bombs."

A recent report from Toxic-Free Future, in fact, has mapped out the PVC train routes, from Texas to New Jersey, for the first time, highlighting the hundreds of towns along 1,979 miles of track that could be at risk during a future derailment. Because, as Valliant says regarding East Palestine: “That was not the first and won’t be the last.”

Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley”
Life cycle stage: Refinery

A mountain of damage oil drums near the Exxon refinery, in the Culp Creek drainage area of Oregon. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Dec. 1972.
Image: John Messina/ ©Wikimedia Commons.

“Cancer Alley,” the dire nickname given to this 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, is unfortunately accurate. That’s because these neighborhoods — home to about 200 fossil fuel and petrochemical plants, the highest concentration of such facilities in the Western hemisphere — have higher cancer rates than the rest of the country (more than seven times the national average in some areas), plus children suffering from chronic asthma and skin rashes, and pregnancies that are more likely to be high-risk.

Some even call the region “death row,” including Saint James Parish resident and activist Sharon Lavigne, who recently told Human Rights Watch: “We’re dying from inhaling the industries’ pollution. I feel like it’s a death sentence. Like we are getting cremated, but not getting burnt.”

It’s also a stark example of environmental racism, as the affected communities are mostly populated by Black, brown, and low-income people — as is the case in Port Arthur, Texas, home to the third largest oil refinery in the US and to elevated cancer rates.

Kimberly Terrell, a Tulane University Law School PhD research scientist who has studied the fallout of air pollution in the region, has found health risks go even beyond cancer. Her findings, published in the journal Environmental Research: Health, found high rates of preterm births, low birth weight, and infant and maternal mortality — among the highest rates in the country, especially for Black women and their infants. Other health issues include high rates of miscarriage, chronic asthma and sinus infections, bronchitis, coughs, and rashes.

In 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency addressed charges of environmental racism by opening an investigation — but abruptly closed the case in June of 2023, just before a federal court temporarily halted the use of one of the EPA’s key tools for exposing racial discrimination.

It “sets back decades of work for Black communities to live in a healthy environment,” Monique Harden, director of law and public policy for the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, told Bloomberg.

Ontario’s “Chemical Valley”
Life cycle stage: Refinery

Petro-chemical industry of Sarnia's Chemical Valley, Ontario, Canada, August, 7, 2012.
Image: P199/ ©Wikimedia Commons.

40% of Canada's petrochemical industry — comprising more than 60 chemical plants and oil refineries — is packed into a 15-square-mile area in Sarnia, Ontario, which has been dubbed the “Chemical Valley.”

It’s also home to the Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve, whose people, according to a 2023 report by the Ontario government through the Sarnia Area Environmental Health Project, are among the most affected areas by polluted air — infused with significant levels of toxic chemicals such as benzene (used in polystyrene production), which can cause leukemia and other cancers, and sulfur dioxide (produced from acid gas flares at refineries), linked to respiratory issues including asthma. Over 30 other chemicals used in local industries were identified for having potential risk.

Meanwhile, new research has found that Sarnia-born children do have higher rates of asthma than those in surrounding cities. And an older study found evidence of high exposure to harmful hormone-blocking chemicals, while residents have long reported elevated incidences of miscarriages, chronic headaches, and asthma.

The Health Project report, which confirmed long-held fears about the fallout of living in the shadow of so many refineries, noted this area amounts to a case of environmental racism and calls for new regulations.
“We have respiratory problems, and we have high cancers,” Beze Gray, an Aamjiwnaang First Nation activist who is among seven young people suing the Ontario government over its climate change policy, told the Resolve. Gray called for more studies on the health effects of residents, including on mental health.

“[The refineries] run 365 days a year, and they don’t shut down like you would think… They run the whole time. We’re having constant noise in our communities where it’s so bad sometimes, like where they’re releasing a really big, heavy flare. And it’s shaking some people’s windows. And they can’t sleep at night because of how close that flare is to their house.”

Quweisna, Egypt
Life cycle stage: Manufacture

While Egypt is one of the world’s top contributors to plastic waste, it’s also one of the biggest manufacturers of plastic, an industry that is expected to grow by 10% a year over the next decade, setting it up to be the largest producer and consumer of plastic items and raw materials in the Middle East and North Africa region.

That’s leaving factory workers to deal with the adverse health effects of plastic manufacturing, especially in the Quweisna Industrial Zone, about 40 miles outside of Cairo. There, according to one study, occupational exposure to toxic chemicals used in plastic manufacturing, including high levels of PVC (the culprit in the East Palestine train derailment) and styrene, had damaging effects on the liver and hematopoietic system, elevating liver enzymes and causing anemia and low platelet counts.

An earlier study of workers at one of the plastic factories showed significantly elevated levels of styrene in the blood, as well as microglobulin in urine (which could indicate blood cancers, such as leukemia or lymphoma) and chromosomal abnormalities.

“Resulting diseases are often diagnosed years after exposure,” notes the International Labour Organization in a report on hazardous chemical exposures for those working in the plastic industry. “Adverse health impacts from these chemicals include impairments to the nervous and reproductive systems, cancers, such as leukemia, and genetic impacts like low birth weight.”

How can I help?

These stories and so many more like them in communities around the world are part of the reason we need a robust Global Plastics Treaty.

This treaty was put forward by Peru and Rwanda, with support from 27 countries and more than 750 civil society groups. Its aim is to address the entire lifecycle of plastic, from the extraction of the fossil fuels used to make it, to its use, and finally its disposal.

Soon, from April 23 to 29, government representatives from 173 countries are set to gather in Ottawa, Canada, for the fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4) to negotiate this legally binding treaty. Take action with Global Citizen now and share why you think we need a robust Global Plastics Treaty.

“Companies continue to vouch for their plastic use because they say it's such a cheap material. Plastic is not cheap,” says Valliant. “Ask those living among the plastic production facilities in Louisiana's Cancer Alley or Port Arthur in Texas if they think plastic is cheap … Plastic is only cheap for the manufacturers; individuals, especially those in environmental justice communities, are paying a high price.”


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