Wow, what a lecture! I was lucky enough to be invited to attend ‘The Life and Afterlife of
Plastics’, a talk by renowned toxicologist Ian Shaw. Ian came to talk about the scientific
dangers of plastics to Burnside High School’s Year 12 and 13 Chemistry Students.
As a professor at the University of Canterbury, Ian is highly regarded as an international
expert on food safety and a passionate communicator of science. He has had over 20 years experience in academia, industry and government both in the UK and New Zealand, which includes chairing the UK Pesticide Residues Committee and working as the National Food Safety Programme Manager at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), based in Christchurch. He researches into our future ability to procreate and prosper from the angle of endocrine disrupting chemicals in food. He says, “I am particularly interested in how these chemicals, which mimic hormones, affect human growth and development. Specifically, how bisphenol-A (used in plastics manufacture) may affect babies.”
Ian delved into the threat of styrene, a human carcinogen from polystyrene, which has even been found in Antarctic penguins! If we think about this deeper, we start to question how thestyrene actually reached Antarctica in the first place, seeing as there are no plastic manufacturing plants on the continent. Shaw argued of the ways that, through microplastics, fish act as filtration systems for the transportation of dangerous chemicals like styrene. Over the course of the talk, he discussed how plasticisers and their hydrophobic interactions, used to hold plastics together, mean that in oceans and rivers, the dangerous chemicals are easily detached from their plasticisers, allowing them access to waterways. If carcinogens leaching into our waters through the environment’s active metabolization wasn’t enough, these chemicals have been found to add to estrogen loads. Certainly a worrying prospect with many shocking consequences to add… more on that to follow! Big thanks to Ian for the fantastic talk! It definitely left me feeling inspired!