Over 6 million health professionals urge plastics treaty negotiators to protect planet, patients in open letter

Reston, VA – Health Care Without Harm released a global sign-on letter on Monday, April 29, 2024, urging negotiators of the Plastics Treaty to ensure an ambitious treaty that does not exclude the healthcare sector. The letter is signed by close to 1,000 medical and public health individuals and organizations, including the World Federation of Public Health Associations (WFPHA), the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA), the International Society of Doctors for Environment, and the Endocrine Society, among others. Representing the demands of over 6 million health professionals worldwide, this sign-on letter calls attention to the urgent need for action to address the plastics crisis globally, including in the healthcare sector.

The Plastics Treaty, an international legally binding agreement upon which all nations are to agree to end plastic pollution, is being negotiated by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) through the International Negotiation Committee on Plastic Pollution (INC). Health Care Without Harm presented the open letter at the fourth INC session (INC-4) in Ottawa, Canada.

“The Plastics Treaty represents a critical and historic opportunity to address the global plastics crisis that threatens human and planetary health,” says Gary Cohen, Health Care Without Harm’s Co-Founder and President. However, there’s a possible exemption for the healthcare sector in the Treaty, which would exempt 10% of the global economy. “Exempting the healthcare sector in the Plastics Treaty would stall movement away from single-use and toxic plastics, and hinder innovation,” continues Mr. Cohen.

Healthcare professionals have long warned about the dangers of the toxic life cycle of plastics. There are serious health threats at each stage of the plastics life cycle, from the hazards posed by the extraction and refining of petrochemicals to the materials and chemicals used to make plastics, through disposal, where plastics can emit chemicals of concern if burned or disposed improperly or break down into microplastics. A March 2024 study conducted by an international team of physicians and researchers and reported in The New England Journal of Medicine found that 60% of the 257 surgical patients they studied who had a build-up of micro and nanoplastics in their arterial plaque had a 4.5 times greater risk of heart attack, stroke or death in the three years after the surgery compared to those who did not have microplastics in their arterial plaque.

Although a major consumer of plastics, the healthcare sector is playing a significant role in leading efforts to eliminate plastic pollution. Health systems are already taking action to reduce single-use plastics, detoxify and reuse plastic, transform culture, and advocate for policy changes in plastics use and production. In doing so, the healthcare sector is showing that it is possible to reduce use and transition away from toxic plastics. “By signing the open letter, over 6 million health professionals are demonstrating their commitment to protecting human and planetary health, and they are counting on INC-4 delegates to show their commitment too,” concludes Mr. Cohen. “A Treaty that protects the planet is also a Treaty that protects our patients.”