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Plastics in our bodies: the next asbestos?

Plastics are everywhere. They're in our food, water and air. A study in 2018 revealed that 83% of tap water contains microplastics. Researchers in Vienna published a study that estimates that more than half of the world population have microplastics in their stools.

A growing body of study suggests that this could have severe implications for human and animal health and poses potential risks to marine and other ecosystems biodiversity and food availability.

Plastics contain chemical additives and contaminants, including known endocrine disruptors that have been shown to be harmful to marine animals in extremely low concentrations. A study in 2017 showed plastic particles present in fish brains are causing brain damage and behavioural disorders.

A working group of Regional Centres of the Stockholm and Basel Conventions and other scientists reported that, "The impacts of plastic litter in the marine environment, the food chain and human health, existing scientific evidence and concerns are already sufficient to support actions by the scientific, industry, policy and civil society communities to curb the ongoing flow of plastics and the toxic chemicals they contain into the marine environment."

Plastics in the world of insurance

So what could this mean for insurance? And what should the re/insurance industry do to help reduce the production and consumption of new plastic, and foster the broader and more efficient treatment of plastics? In the past, I've moderated breakout sessions at Swiss Re's Life & Health Forum to discuss just that with leading insurers from Switzerland.

I was surprised to find that while plastics are of huge personal concern to all those present, most insurers are not yet looking at the potential harm plastics can have on our health. There was broad consensus that we need more studies to assess the consequences that plastic accumulation could have on our bodies. There was also consensus that every single one of us needs to be the change we want to see in terms of plastics reduction and treatment.

We all agreed that, without immediate strong preventive measures, the environmental impacts and the economic costs will only become worse, even in the short term.
Continued increases in plastic production and consumption, combined with wasteful uses, inefficient waste collection infrastructures and insufficient waste management facilities, especially in developing countries, mean that even achieving already established objectives for reductions in marine litter will be a huge challenge.

How plastic is your life?

What are you doing to address the plastics issue in your personal and professional lives? And what role do you think the re/insurance industry could play to help accelerate the changes required? Please comment below.

From my side, I've been trying to tackle the problem for years, reducing my own consumption while campaigning for better behaviours and legislation. Also, at Swiss Re, I teach yoga and donate 50% of proceeds at the end of the year to an ocean conservation project of our choice, which our yoga group chooses. Last year they picked the Ocean CleanUp Project, which I was particularly happy about as I've been supporting that amazing initiative since 2013. Proving that dreaming big and collaborating with the best can help us solve some of the world's biggest challenges.