An alarming study has found that microplastics are everywhere to the point where they have become a part of nature. Even if man were to disappear tomorrow, microplastics would still form part of the environment — drawing attention to their shocking proliferation throughout the world.
Plastic, including microplastic, on a beach
Microplastics are Everywhere
A new study of microplastic pollution has confirmed that it is now so extensive that microplastics circulate around the world like air or water, allowing them to reach the most remote places on the planet – whether humans are there or not.
Microplastics, as the name suggests, are simply tiny pieces of plastic. While some microplastics are visible to the naked eye, some – probably the vast majority – are not. Generally, the classification includes any piece of plastic below 5mm in size.
Microplastics are further categorised into primary and secondary forms. Primary microplastics are designed to be the size they are. These include microbeads, which are often used in beauty products, nurdles (small pellets) and clothing fibres. A single washing cycle, for example, can cause synthetic clothing to shed as many as 700, 000 fibres.
Secondary microplastics, by contrast, are created through the breakdown of larger pieces of plastics. This can occur as a result of UV rays from the sun, and the action of wind and waves.
In December 2020, to the shock of the researchers and the mothers who took part, a study revealed that microplastics had been discovered in the placentas of unborn babies. The particles were found in the placentas of four women who had otherwise normal pregnancies, and were discovered on both sides of the placenta (that is, on the maternal side and the foetal side, as well as in the membrane within which the foetus develops).
A baby fish full of microplastic
Studies have already shown that microplastics take to the air (one study recorded microplastics as constituting 4%, or just under 1/20th of all airborne dust), but this new study has substantiated the problem further, and explained how it happens.
Through a combination of experimental data and modelling, the researchers showed that microplastics become airborne from land and sea and then travel across entire continents, allowing them to reach the most inaccessible places on earth – places humans rarely, if ever, set foot and pollute directly.
According to one of the researchers, “This plastic is not new from this year. It’s from what we’ve already dumped into the environment over several decades.” In other words, the plastic pollution is secondary microplastics, larger pieces of old plastic that are gradually broken down whether on the road or in floating rafts like the enormous Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The plastic is already out there and needs to be cleaned up.
A diver swims in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Over a year period, the researchers collected 313 samples of airborne microplastics from 11 different sites across the western US. They found that 84% came from road dust, 11% from sea spray, 5% from agricultural soil, and 0.4% from population sources.
Modelling was then used to try to understand what the worldwide circulation of microplastics might look like. The results were not pretty. In particular, they showed the important role played by marine plastic pollution in ensuring the circulation of microplastic pollution to every continent in the world.
“Using our best estimate of plastic sources and modeled transport pathways, most continents are net importers of microplastics from the marine environment,” explained another of the researchers. “This underscores the cumulative role of legacy pollution in the atmospheric burden of plastic.”
Although the scientific study of microplastics is a relatively new field, the impact on marine ecosystems is already well understood to be devastating. The implications for humans are less clear, beyond the possible contribution of microplastics to declining fish stocks and the collapse of marine ecosystems and the knock-on effects for us. But we can still speculate about what effects these microplastics might be having in the human body as well.
In our recent article on xenoestrogens, we considered the role of plastic chemicals such as pthalates in causing endocrine (i.e. hormonal) disruption in humans and other animals. Pthalates were first introduced on a wide scale during the 1950s, when PVC became readily available. They are used to make plastic more flexible, and as a result have a huge variety of everyday applications: in food containers, water bottles and children’s toys, as well as foams, solvents, perfumes, pesticides, nail polish, adhesives and lubricants. Studies of pthalates have shown that prenatal exposure may cause feminisation of baby boys and be responsible for smaller penis size. [R]
Given that many if not all of these microplastics will have been treated with such substances, they are likely to act as vectors for them to enter the human body, with disruptive effects. Just how great these effects might be remains to be seen, and should be the subject of urgent research.
Although there are ways to reduce your potential exposure to microplastics, you’re not going to be able to do so totally, at least while remaining in the modern world. Even if fish and shellfish are the main route from the foodchain into humans, as is generally suggested, microplastics have been found in non-marine food sources including chicken, honey and beer. Bottled water is another major contributor; in fact, it may even be a much greater contributor of microplastics than any quantity of fish you eat.
One thing you can do, as we urged in our article on xenoestrogens is to start reducing your reliance on plastic. That includes water bottles, canned foods, non-stick cookware and plastic wrappings. You can also choose natural fibres such as wool and cotton over synthetic fibres, install a reverse osmosis water filter with an activated carbon filter for your drinking water and aim to buy organic, locally grown or raised food.
And on the subject of environmental impact, we have an article on the dangers of soy to the modern man in conjunction with widespread deforestation to accommodate demands for soy production.
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