Will Microplastics Become A Serious Health Issue?
What are microplastics and how do they threaten us?
June 3, 2019, Bruno Jacobsen
Despite being an incredibly versatile and important material, shaping the world we see around us, plastic has got a bad rap. Lately, however, some of that focus has shifted towards "microplastics." Microplastics are any plastic fragment less than 5 millimetres in length. Our worry? That these slowly-degrading fragments are a threat not only to the environment and animal life but to our own health too.
The Long-term Effect of Plastic
Microplastics, very small plastic fragments, less than 5 millimetres in length, can be found in several places. And there's a lot of it. A 2015 study showed that there are between 93 and 236 metric tons of microplastics in the world's oceans. They have also been found in freshwater ecosystems, in the soil, and even in the air. Even more worrying, they have been found inside a lot of animal species.
The majority of microplastics can be divided into 3 types: polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene. The first element comes from plastic bags, the second can be found in bottle caps, and the third from utensils, cups, coolers, etc. All in all, there are 13 common plastic polymers, which can be found in anything from electronics to clothing.
The more worrying thing for scientists is the long-term effect of plastic on our environment. Very little of the plastic we discard every day is recycled or incinerated in waste-to-energy facilities. 79 per cent of plastic waste ends up in landfills, where some of it may take up to 1000 years to decompose, releasing potentially toxic substances into the soil and water.
While the potential threats of microplastic to plants are unclear to scientists, they all agree that plastic particles can change the soil chemistry. An article in the UN Environment argues that plastic particles contain additives such as phthalates and Bisphenol A (also known as BPA) and when they are released to the environment, these additives can disrupt the hormone system of vertebrates and invertebrates alike. Nano-sized particles within the cell can trigger changes in gene expression and biochemical reactions, among other things.
The long-term effect of plastic on aquatic life is more visible than it is on soil since it's more pervasive. Due to insufficient waste disposal and littering, most of the plastic we use end up in the ocean and into animal bodies. According to a National Geographic article, microplastics have been found in 114 aquatic species.
And there's plenty of evidence to support the claim that they damage marine life, birds, and turtles. It has been found that they "block digestive tracks, diminish the urge to eat, and alter feeding behaviour, all of which reduce growth and reproductive behaviour." The article goes on, "Their stomachs stuffed with plastic, some species starve and die."
Not a pretty picture.
We are what we eat
Of those 114 aquatic species where microplastics have been found, more than half of them are consumed daily by humans. And that's only the tip of the iceberg. A study published in April 2018 also found microfibers and other particles in packaged sea salt, beer, and bottled and tap water. This means human beings are almost certainly also ingesting microplastics.
And what happens when we do? So far, luckily for us, there has been no conclusive evidence that there are negative health effects. According to National Geographic, most microplastics studied by scientists seem to stay in the guts of fish and don't pass to their muscle tissue, which is what we consume. The article further refers us to a report from the United Nations that has concluded we only consume negligible amounts of microplastics, and that eating fish and other aquatic species is still far better than not eating it, given the nutritional benefits.
But because we can't ask people to ingest microplastics for the sake of experiment (for obvious ethical reasons), we cannot be completely sure at what doses it does become toxic, or what the long-term effects are.
According to Chelsea Rochman, professor of ecology at the University of Toronto, we know that plastic affects animals at almost all levels of biological organization, and we know we should aim to reduce plastic pollution from entering our ecosystems. That hasn't stopped her from eating seafood, however, since, to the best of her knowledge, the benefits still outweigh the costs.
Going forward, however, we still need to further our understanding of the consequences of microplastic for our own bodies and the environment at large. With certain negative consequences affecting the latter at least, it is encouraging to see worldwide efforts to reduce plastic use - a trend which will certainly continue into the future.
The Way Forward
Significant effort has been made to both reduce the use of non-biodegradable plastics as well as find alternative solutions to our plastic problem. Some of them are:
What if we make our packages edible so that when they enter the water, animals can eat them instead of choking to death? That's the question scientists are trying to find an answer to. So far, an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientist has received a patent for her method to turn a milk protein into water-resistant films that could be used to coat or package foods. If being adopted, this method can be used to create biodegradable, and even edible food wraps. One possible drawback, though, is that it will be dissolved in water.
Another company, Saltwater Brewery, seems to figure out the answer to that problem. Its first ever edible six-pack beer ring made of barley and wheat ribbons from the brewing process can be safely eaten by animals that may come into contact with the refuse.
Another approach to the plastic problem is to use synthetic biology to create new renewable products with far fewer inputs and negative side effects.
Synthetic biology is a field that applies engineering principles to biology. It uses bioengineering to redesign gene sequences and fabricate biological components that do not exist in the natural world.
Right now, investors are betting that new cell-produced products could replace many industrial and chemical processes in food, fuel, medicine, proteins, and materials.
This article is using the information in Futures Platform about Change in Sustainable Development, Recycling and Environmental Thinking.
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