Plastics have become a part of our daily lives. We’ll most likely find ourselves in situations where plastics are insight everywhere we go. But now, we have a bigger problem. Microplastics. What are they, and what damage can they bring into our already messed-up lives?
Since the 1950s, humans have produced more than 8 billion tons of plastic, and less than 10%of it has been recycled. Hence, much of it has broken down into tiny particles, which are what we call microplastics, that make their way into lakes, rivers, and oceans, and eventually contaminate our food and water. How come it can contaminate our food and water? Simple, because they usually come wrapped in plastic. As a matter of fact, there is so much plastic all around us that we are breathing them right now.
It is known that scientists and researchers have been concerned about the potential harms of microplastics for almost 20 years (and continue to have more and more concern)— although most studies have focused on the risks to marine life instead of humans.
The earliest research on microplastics was focused on microbeads found in personal-care products, plastics that can escape before they turn into objects, and fragments that slowly erode from bottles or other large debris. Because they can’t decompose, they’ve washed away into rivers and oceans. Back in 2015, oceanographers estimated there were between 15 trillion and 51 trillion microplastic floating in surface waters worldwide. Other sources of microplastic: plastic specks shear off from car tires and synthetic microfibers shed from clothing. The microplastic particles blow around between sea and land, so people might be inhaling or eating plastic from any source.
Evangelos Danopoulos from Hull York Medical School, UK, stated that research about the health impact of microplastics is increasing pretty fast. Danopoulos said: “It is exploding and for good reason. We are exposed to these particles every day: we’re eating them and inhaling them. And we don’t really know how they react with our bodies once they are in.”
In March 2021, a study showed tiny plastic particles in the lungs of pregnant rats pass rapidly into the hearts, brains, and other organs of their fetuses. In December 2021, microplastics were revealed in the placentas of unborn babies, which the researchers said, was “a matter of great concern”. In October, scientists showed that babies formula milk in plastic bottles contains millions of microplastic particles. Children under six years old inhale around three times more microplastics than the average. They would also ingest on average 6.1 milligrams of microplastics in dust per kg of body weight per year.
Here is some information that we know about microplastics according to research:
Some of these microplastic particles could potentially leach bisphenol A and phthalates. Bisphenols are known to interfere with hormones, and there are studies linking bisphenol exposure to reduced fertility in men and women, noting that phthalates are also known to disrupt hormones, and prenatal exposure to phthalates is linked to lower testosterone in male offspring.
Styrene, another chemical found in plastic packaging, has also been linked to several health issues, including nervous system problems, hearing loss, and cancer.
Microplastic particles can also accumulate polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and other chemicals that are linked to harmful health effects, including various cancers, a weakened immune system, reproductive problems, and more.
Additional to microplastics, there is another even smaller plastic called nanoplastic (less than 0.05mm wide). But we know even less about nanoplastics than microplastics. We know very little about the effects and the exposure concentrations. However, we do know that very small particles of other materials, like asbestos, or very small particles that negatively affect air quality, can have negative effects on human health when inhaled for longer times at higher concentrations.
Even so, we still do not have solid data to really ensure the danger of microplastics. Yes, some research has concluded the possibility of microplastics being a threat to humans, but it’s still not enough. Further study and research are required so we can have an exact calculation. The first widespread effect that you could expect from microplastic would be decades, maybe 50 years or 100 years.
“The good news about plastic is that it can be reversed. I think it is feasible to strongly reduce leakage to the environment, to such an extent that these risks are minor or absent, or negligible. There is no widespread risk now and at least we can do something to make it so it will not become a widespread risk in the next decades,” said professor Bart Koelmans from Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands who is also a member of the Science Advice for Policy by European Academies (SAPEA).
Our Homes Are Full of Harmful Microplastics. Here’s How to Minimize the Risk [Internet]. World Economic Forum; 2021 [cited April 15 2022]. Available from: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/05/microplastics-home-health-climate-change-risk/#:~:text=Microplastics%20can%20carry%20a%20range,meaning%20they%20potentially%20cause%20cancer
Microplastics Are Everywhere - But Are They Harmful? [Internet]. Nature; 2021 [cited April 15 2022]. Available from: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01143-3
We Know Plastic Is Harming Marine Life. What About Us? [Internet]. National Geographic [cited April 15 2022]. Available from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/plastic-planet-health-pollution-waste-microplastics
‘We Still Don’t Know Enough About The Dangers Of Microplastics’ [Internet]. European Commision; 2019 [cited April 15 2022]. Available from: https://ec.europa.eu/research-and-innovation/en/horizon-magazine/we-still-dont-know-enough-about-dangers-microplastics
Microplastics Cause Damage To Human Cells, Study Shows [Internet]. The Guardian; 2021 [cited April 15 2022]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/dec/08/microplastics-damage-human-cells-study-plastic
You’re Literally Eating Microplastics. How You Can Cut Down Exposure To Them. [Internet]. The Washington Post; 2019 [cited April 15 2022]. Available from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/youre-literally-eating-microplastics-how-you-can-cut-down-exposure-to-them/2019/10/04/22ebdfb6-e17a-11e9-8dc8-498eabc129a0_story.html