Emily Penn: How Do Toxins From Plastics Find Their Way Into Our Food? Ocean advocate Emily Penn has seen first hand how much plastic ends up in the oceans. She explains how the toxins from plastic makes their way into our food chain and how we might be able to stop it.

How Do Toxins From Plastics Find Their Way Into Our Food?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/497846035/498714385" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


So how much of these toxins are actually inside our bodies? Well, that's what environmental activist Emily Penn decided to find out.

EMILY PENN: I grew up eating food mostly from the back garden. My parents are hugely keen gardeners.

RAZ: You were not eating processed food?

PENN: I wasn't eating processed food. I was the one who showed up at my friend's birthday party with, like, freshly-pulled beetroot with its sprouts all attached to give to my friends, when everyone else showed up with a box of chocolates.

RAZ: So you're thinking, like, my body is not exactly loaded with toxic chemicals?

PENN: Exactly.

RAZ: But recently, Emily decided to have her blood tested for 35 toxic chemicals that are banned by the United Nations.

PENN: And of those 35 chemicals that we tested for, we found 29 of them inside my body.

RAZ: And that included traces of pesticides and flame retardants.

PENN: I should point out here that the levels of chemicals I have inside me, they're not alarmingly high that I need to be immediately concerned about my health.

PENN: For me, it's more of a scary indication of the direction that we're heading.

RAZ: As we just heard from Tyrone Hayes, there are tons of ways these chemicals get into our bodies. And Emily is focused on just one of those ways - through plastics. So think about how much plastic you use every day - a plastic fork, a phone, little baggies for sandwiches...

PENN: The smell of a new shower curtain.

RAZ: Oh, I love that smell.

PENN: Yeah (laughter). That's...

RAZ: That's not good?

PENN: No, that's not good.

RAZ: One problem with plastic - it's made to last a very, very long time.

PENN: And then we go and design products like plastic bags and plastic water bottles that are designed to be used just once out of that material that's designed to last forever.

RAZ: And there's really not a lot of great options for how to deal with all that plastic. Emily explained why on the TED stage.


PENN: Only about 10 percent of the plastic that we use actually gets recycled. And that number's so low because plastic is really a term that we give to hundreds of different materials. They all have different properties. And to give them those properties, they need different chemical structures. But when you recycle something, the first thing you have to do is separate out all those different types of plastic. You need to clean them. And it's a very lengthy and expensive process.

And it's much, much cheaper to take virgin plastic and make new products from scratch. And so instead, we see a lot of this plastic going to landfill. And also, 8 million tons of it annually washing down streams, down rivers and waterways. And eventually everything runs downhill to the ocean.

RAZ: A couple of years ago, Emily went on a boat trip organized by environmental activists to see the problem firsthand.

PENN: We would be in a part of the ocean a thousand miles from the nearest human being, you know, in the middle of the Pacific. And we'd - you'd see everything. You'd see plastic bags, plastic fragments, a washing basket...

RAZ: In the middle of the ocean?

PENN: ...A TV - in the middle of the ocean. You'd jump in for a swim and you'd find a toothbrush. You know, it just totally boggled my mind about how we have managed to just disperse our waste literally across the whole of our planet.

RAZ: But it wasn't until they put a fine net into the ocean, when they realized there is a much bigger problem.


PENN: The bigger problem was actually the smaller pieces. Because when we bring that net on deck, turn that sock inside out, this is what we find. We find thousands of tiny fragments of plastic smaller than your little fingernail, what we call micro plastics. And most of the plastic in our ocean is actually that big. When we get these samples on board, we see the same thing all the way from the tropics up to the Arctic.

And it's almost like there's this fine mist of plastic pieces that just vary in concentration across our whole ocean. And so when we get those samples back onboard, the next thing we have to do is analyze them and work out what's plastic and what's plankton. And it made me wonder how the fish would cope, working out what was their food and what wasn't. And then we start finding things like fish with actually fragments of plastic inside its stomach.

RAZ: So basically, these toxins that are going into the fish are just, like, climbing up the food chain?

PENN: Yes, exactly. So the fact that when that plastic - so much of it does end up in our ocean. We are now finding a lot of - definitely the bigger marine mammals that you would have seen in the media, whales being washed up, turtles being found with stomachs full of plastic. It is rather scary that we know that this plastic, which has a lot of toxic chemicals, that actually getting into the food chain, that of course we are at the top of.

RAZ: So I know that you take groups out to show them the effects of plastic in our environment.

PENN: Yeah.

RAZ: You also - you do the same blood tests for people in those groups. And so are you finding that everyone you test is just full of toxins?

PENN: So before you get too depressed, we did have some interesting results when we looked at DDE - the derivative of DDT - inside our bodies. And of the whole group that we were sampling, we found that one of our members of the group had very, very high levels of DDE, way above the national average. And the rest of us, way below the national average. And she was actually 67 years old, and the only one of us who was alive prior to 1972, prior to that ban of DDT.

What we can kind of draw from that small set of results is that those of us who have just been living post the ban have actually got very little of that chemical inside us. So when we do decide to make a change and we enforce it really as a global community, then we can see positive results in our own bodies.

RAZ: Emily Penn is an environmental activist. You can see her full talk at ted.npr.org.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.