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The Coming Wave of Plastic Liabilities and Insurance Coverage

May. 31, 2020

According to the World Economic Forum, plastic production has increased twenty-fold since 1964.  This increased production, coupled with insufficient waste management protocols and the one time use of most plastic products, has led to a global threat: plastic pollution.  Indeed, plastic waste has infiltrated the world’s oceans and lands and has become a potential hazard to our environment and human health.

Recently, the plastic pollution threat has been compounded by the discovery of microplastics—small plastic particles that result from the breakdown of human-made plastics, typically measuring less than 5 millimeters.

Microplastics are now believed to exist everywhere, including in our water and food supplies.  A study by the University of Newcastle, Australia, suggests that an average person could be ingesting approximately 5 grams of plastic every week—the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of microplastics.  And the June 2019 issue of the journal of Environmental Science and Technology reported that “Americans consume an estimated 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles per year from seafood, water, sugars, salts, and alcohol alone.”

The long-term effects of microplastic ingestion on human health are currently unknown.  In September 2019, the World Health Organization stated that microplastics “don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels,” but cautioned that the available information was limited and more research was needed to determine how microplastics effected human health.

In the meantime, the current research on plastic’s chemical makeup and its effect on human health is concerning.  A November 2019 report by the UN Environmental Programme discussed studies that found that additives in plastic are known to disrupt animals’ hormonal systems and that the possible impacts on human health include lung inflammation, carcinogenicity, and gene mutation.

While the current research is limited, as more studies are conducted, specific chemicals in plastic products are linked to bodily harm, and the ingestion of microplastics is better understood, businesses that are responsible or even potentially responsible for an individual’s exposure to plastics could face a range of liabilities.  If a business manufactures plastic products or products that contain microplastics, it could face claims from individuals alleging bodily injuries or diseases from plastic exposure or microplastic ingestion.  These risks may be mitigated by insurance.

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