Microplastics exist almost everywhere. What does this mean for our health?

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Tiny particles of plastic have spread to every corner of the earth, from the deepest parts of the oceans to the heights of Mount Everest. “Microplastics were found in almost every animal species we studied,” Tamara Galloway, professor of ecotoxicology at the University of Exeter in the UK, told DW.

Traces of these stealth contaminants are often invisible and permeate the guts of seabirds, agricultural crops, human blood, and drinking water. And it turns out we’re ingesting more plastic than we thought.

A new study on January 8 revealed that there are 100 times more plastic particles in bottled water than previous studies showed.Report published in a US academic journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesfound an average of more than 250,000 plastic particles per liter of bottled water, 90 percent of which were nanoplastics.

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Researchers used a new technique to precisely analyze nanoplastics that are less than 1 micron in size, or 80 times the width of a human hair. Nanoplastics are considered more toxic because they can more easily enter the human body than larger microplastics.

Around 430 million tonnes of plastic products are produced around the world every year, and this figure is likely to triple by 2060. Only about 9 percent of plastic is actually recycled. The rest is incinerated, sent to landfills, or ultimately released into the environment, where it can take centuries to decompose. But it still doesn’t go away completely. Most discarded plastic breaks down into microplastics, which are tiny pieces less than 5 millimeters in diameter.

Microplastics typically begin their journey on land, but end up being transported by rivers and wind to oceans around the world. They can come from things like cosmetics, city dust, road signs, and processed plastic pellets. However, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, most of the major microplastics in the world’s oceans come from washing textiles (35%) and tire wear while driving (28%).

Microplastics in our food, water and air

Once in the environment, microplastics can accumulate in animals, including fish and shellfish, which are then also consumed by humans as food. And it’s not just seafood. Our wastewater also contains microplastics. Up to 42,000 tonnes of microplastics are sprayed onto European farmland each year as pollutant-laden sewage sludge is used as fertilizer in agriculture, a study has found.

It is also found in food crops. A study conducted in Italy in 2020 found that apples had the highest levels of microplastics among fruits, and carrots were the most contaminated vegetable.

So what does this mean for our health?

Plastic particles are present in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. Therefore, they inevitably end up in our bodies. Studies have found microplastics in human blood and breast milk, and they have been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier in mice.

Galloway said that while it has long been known that plastic additives such as bisphenol A and phthalates are present in the human body, “what is surprising is that small pieces of the plastic itself can now be found in humans. This means that it has been found in the body.” “What we don’t know is what they’re doing there. We have some ideas, but we haven’t been able to prove it yet.”

There is no conclusive data on how exposure to microplastics affects human health. We often encounter various chemicals and substances in our daily lives, making it difficult to separate and track them.

However, Professor Galloway said small plastics embedded in human tissue were likely to “cause inflammation and an inflammatory response”. “Chemical additives in plastics (such as plasticizers, mordants, additives, antioxidants and dyes) can also be slowly released,” she added.

So what can we do about it?

Galloway said people can limit their exposure to microplastics by reducing their intake of processed and packaged foods and by not repeatedly heating food in plastic containers in the microwave. By using plastic-free personal care products and ditching synthetic clothing in favor of natural materials, we can potentially eliminate a significant portion of the microplastics that end up in our oceans. Also, using your car less can reduce plastic particles from tire wear.

Scientists are also working to find ways to limit the flow of microplastics into the environment.

Collects tire dust

In the UK, a start-up called Tire Collective has developed a device that absorbs microplastics and other pollutants from the friction of tires on the road. “We all know that tires wear out, but I don’t think we’ve ever made the connection or thought about where the particles actually go. They get into the air and into our waterways. ” co-founder Hanson Chen told DW.

His device sits behind the wheel and uses static electricity and airflow from the car’s movement to attract and capture microplastics from the tires. These captured particles can be upcycled into construction materials, 3D printing, shoe soles, etc., Chen says.

Magnetic solution for plastic in water

Meanwhile, researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, have developed a magnetic powder that can remove microplastics from water. This substance is mixed with water, where it attracts plastic particles. A magnet then pulls out the microplastic-laden sorbent, leaving behind clean water.

Nicky Eshtiagi, a chemical engineer who led the research, said the carbon-based powder is unique in that it “removes 100 percent of microplastics within an hour.” It also works in salt or fresh water and can extract plastics that are 1 micrometer or 1,000 times thinner than a human hair.

“This process has several different applications and can be easily scaled up,” says Eshtiaghi. Although the research team is partnering with an oyster company, she says the powder could also be used to clean sewage treatment plants, textile factories, dry cleaners and other places.

Plastic continues to accumulate in the environment

But given the scale of the plastics crisis, solving the problem will require more than scientific innovation.

At the international level, the United Nations is working to conclude a global treaty on plastic pollution by 2024, including measures such as limits on hazardous chemicals and hard-to-recycle plastics. “We need to end plastic pollution by 2040,” Virginia Janssens, managing director of industry group Plastics Europe, told DW. “We want to support that through building a circular economy, where all plastic applications are reused and/or recycled and are managed responsibly during and after use.”

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Meanwhile, the production of new plastics and the amount of plastics leaking into the environment will continue to increase. Sheila Agarwal Khan, director of industry and economics at the United Nations Environment Programme, says this is a “very big concern”.

“Will we just keep waiting for the evidence to start mounting? And will we continue to drag out the legacy of unmanageable plastic pollution, which impacts not only the environment but also human health? I guess.”

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