- The increasing amount of plastic in our world
- is a potential threat to human health—plastics are all around us and we are exposed to plastics in many different ways.
Discarded cigarette butts are the most littered item and cause a number of fires in Queensland. In 2019, the heritage-listed Binna Burra Lodge in Beechmont, together with 11 other houses, burned in a bushfire started from unlawfully discarded cigarette butts. The fire endangered lives and had extensive economic and emotional impacts on the homeowners and the broader community. Two deaths have been officially attributed to fires started from cigarette butts, one in 2000–01 and one in 2002– 03. The actual numbers could be higher as statistics are difficult to find.
Other Illegally dumped waste can also lead to life-threatening fires. Flammable waste, such as paper, can be a fuel and make small fires worse. Glass dumped in dry bushland can be an ignition source.
If dumped tyres are burned (either intentionally or in a bushfire), they produce highly toxic smoke containing petroleum and oil. The smoke can also contain hazardous chemicals such as chlorine, styrene and butadiene, and metals like lead, cadmium and mercury. Many of the chemicals are carcinogenic. Once lit, tyres are difficult to extinguish and burn for a long time.
Ingestion/Toxicity from Plastics
Microplastics have been found in drinking water and major freshwater sources, including river and lake water, groundwater, tap water and bottled drinking water. Microplastics have been detected in stool samples from test subjects. Although the absorption of plastic across the gastrointestinal tract is relatively low, nanoplastics are more readily absorbed and may accumulate in the brain, liver and other tissues.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) consuming microplastics has no serious effects on human health at current levels. However, the WHO based their conclusion on relatively few scientific studies, and they emphasised that more intensive research is urgently required.
Toxicologists have issued the same warning, stating that human health may be affected by:
- the size of plastic— small particles can more easily enter the body and can affect the immune system with oxidative stress, DNA damage and inflammation
- chemical effects— plastic can absorb pollutants such as pesticides and carcinogens and, once in circulation, can deliver these toxins to organs such as the brain or placenta
- microbial effects— the surface of plastic develops an ecosystem of its own and can transport bacteria and dangerous pathogens.
Human health could also be at risk from the inhalation of microplastics. Due to the small size of microplastics, inhalation may induce lesions in the respiratory system, dependent upon individual susceptibility and particle properties.
Waste can release other toxins into the environment that can affect human health. This includes heavy metals and chemicals from cigarette butts. The tar in cigarettes contains heavy metals and dangerous chemicals that can potentially leach into soil and water, and enter the food chain. It is estimated that each discarded cigarette butt can contaminate 1000 litres of water with harmful levels of nicotine and may be a threat to drinking water.
Mosquitoes can be a problem if they breed in accumulated waste, such as illegally dumped tyres. These environments can become a breeding ground for mosquitoes that can spread deadly diseases such as dengue fever, Zika virus, malaria and yellow fever.
Waste material can cause a variety of injuries and accidents by:
- unsecure waste material falling from trucks and trailers, resulting in car accidents and injuries to pedestrians
- motor vehicle accidents associated with avoiding wildlife scavenging on discarded waste
- people stepping on broken glass, fishing hooks and other sharp objects
- children swallowing discarded batteries
- children swallowing cigarette butts and other toxic material.
The accumulation and concentration of pollutants in the food chain is a major concern for human health. For example, a 2018 review showed that plastic is present in organisms at different levels of the same food chain. However, the impacts on wider marine food chains and the implications for human health remain unknown.
Although it is known that microplastics adsorb chemicals, further research is needed on the impacts of the accumulation on human health.
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Last updated: 15 January 2021
This page should be cited as:
Department of Environment and Science, Queensland (2021) Human Health, WetlandInfo website, accessed 1 February 2021. Available at: https://wetlandinfo.des.qld.gov.au/wetlands/management/pressures/litter-illegal-dumping/effects-values/human-health.html