IPEN International Pollutants Elimination Network

Toxic Threats Throughout the Plastics Life Cycle

People are exposed to toxic chemicals in every stage of the plastics life cycle

Plastics are materials made from carbon (fossil fuels) and chemicals. Plastics do not exist without chemicals, and harmful chemicals are released at every phase of the plastics life cycle – from oil extraction to plastics production, transport, use, and disposal.

Plastic by the Numbers


Chemicals in plastics have been identified


Chemicals in plastics are known
to be substances of concern


number of chemicals in plastics that have no safety data


percent of plastic waste that is actually recycled

Health Threats

Over 13,000 chemicals in plastics have been identified, and more than 3,200 of these chemicals are known to be substances of concern (there is incomplete or no hazard data on hundreds of other plastic chemicals). Some of the toxic chemicals in plastics are persistent organic pollutants (POPs), some are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), and others are chemicals known or suspected of causing serious health problems. Toxic chemicals in plastics have been linked to cancers, damage to the immune and reproductive systems, impaired intellectual functions, developmental delays, and other serious health conditions.

Evidence suggests that we are already seeing serious health problems from chemical exposures throughout the plastics lifecycle. For example, concerns have been raised about global declines in sperm counts, potentially related to chemicals used in some plastics. One recent study suggests that we have already exceeded the “planetary boundaries” for plastics and chemical production, meaning that production and emissions may be threatening the stability of the entire global ecosystem.

Plastics poison our bodies

Although chemical pollution from plastics is a global problem, it is most acute in areas near plastics production facilities and in low- and middle-income countries that may have weaker regulations and are used as dumping grounds for plastic wastes. The people in these countries are already disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals and face greater health risks due to this environmental injustice. See our video exposing health threats from chemicals in plastics (available with audio in English, Spanish, and French).