Microplastics are everywhere — to the point where they have now become intertwined with nature. Now, it appears that microplastics are being accumulated by honeybees to the point where these airborne pollutants may be present in honey.
The shocking news would add to the alarming ubiquity of these pollutants. To date, they have been found in fetuses, fish, and even the remotest parts of the globe.
How Microplastics Were Found in Bees
Honeybees are covered in electrostatically charged hairs that help efficiently trap pollen and other debris during their daily activities, according to Nat Geo.
However, these small hairs have trapped another undesirable residue in plastics. A total of 13 different synthetic polymers were detected in a study on microplastics and honeybees, conducted in Denmark [R].
The revelation could potentially spell that these damaging microplastics can make their way into honey.
One Twitter user wrote: “It’s even worse than the headline, the microplastics are getting caught in the hairs that normally trap pollen. Meaning that the microplastics are getting into the honey.”
Bees have been studied for years by scientists to track the proliferation of pollution in the atmosphere due to their hairs.
“This work demonstrates for the first time the possibility of using honeybees as a bioindicator for the presence of MPs (microplastics) in the environment,” the researchers noted.
The discovery of microplastics in bees confirms many fears — as the small plastic pollutants were found in fetuses.
These pollutants are so ubiquitous that, even if humanity were to disappear tomorrow, they would still be a part of nature. We looked at this revelation in further detail in a previous article.
What Are They And Why Are They Bad News?
Plastic not so fantastic: our seas and oceans have become a plastic graveyard
We’ve all seen the images. Our beautiful seas and oceans defiled by vast quantities of single-use plastic. The enormous artificial reefs of trash. Seabirds ensnared in plastic beer can rings. The rotting corpse of a sea turtle suspended in a web of plastic netting. The contents of a sperm whale’s stomach: 100kg of assorted plastic – nets, ropes, bags, straps, cups and bottles. The list goes on…
A sperm whale found stranded on the Isle of Harris, Scotland
had 100kg of plastic in its stomach
While much of the focus, rightly, is on the massive quantity of visible pieces of plastic waste that are clogging our seas and oceans and strangling its inhabitants, as well as on noble endeavours to reduce it, such as Boyan Slat’s Ocean Cleanup company, the truth is that the problem of plastic pollution extends well beyond the visible.
The phenomenon of microplastics, literally microscopic pieces of plastic, is now generating increasing awareness, as we learn more about their ubiquity in our seas and oceans and also their growing presence in the food chain. The long-term effects of microplastics on humans and animals are as yet largely unknown, but they are unlikely to be good.
Microplastics, as the name suggests, are simply very small pieces of plastic. While some microplastics are still visible to the naked eye, as in the picture above, some – perhaps the vast majority – are not. Generally, the classification is any piece of plastic below 5mm in size.
Microplastics are further categorised into primary and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics are manufactured as microplastics, meaning they are designed to be the size they are. These include microbeads, which are often used in beauty products, nurdles (small pellets) and clothing fibres. It is estimated that a single washing cycle can cause synthetic clothing fibres to shed as many as 700, 000 fibres. [R]
Secondary microplastics, by contrast, are created through the breakdown of larger pieces of plastics, which can occur as a result of UV rays from the sun, and the action of wind and waves. A piece of polystyrene, perhaps a takeaway food carton, might break down into tiny pieces over time as it sits on the beach, under the action of the sun, sea and wind.
Microplastics in the Food Chain and in Human Bodies
The human placenta, now a known home to microplastics
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. [R] 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).
Only a small piece of each placenta was examined, suggesting that many more particles were present than were actually found. All of the particles had been dyed, suggesting that they had come from packaging, paints, personal care products or cosmetics. The mothers may have either consumed the plastic or inhaled it. Yes, that’s right: there are microplastics in the air. In fact, in one study, of airborne dust, 4% of all particles the researchers found were plastic. So that’s just under 1/20 of all the airborne dust. [R]
TFW you learn about airborne microplastics
What’s more, the particles were small enough – 10 microns or 0.01mm – to enter the bloodstream. It is entirely possible, then, that microplastics had been transferred into the babies’ blood; although the researchers did not investigate this.
As shocking as this is, it’s totally consistent with what we have come to know in recent years about the ubiquity of microplastics. Microplastics in rain. [R] Microplastics in Arctic ice. [R] Microplastics in fish and fruit and vegetables. [R] [R] Microplastics in drinking water and waste waster. [R] [R] Microplastics are everywhere. So what does this mean?
Microplastics: Health Implications
A baby fish full of microplastic balls
We already know that the actual physical effects of consuming microplastics can be deadly for many species of animal. Fish, for instance, are being killed because some varieties seem to prefer eating microplastics to their normal food sources, effectively starving them. Baby fish are especially vulnerable. [R]
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 of this for us; but we can still speculate about what effects these microplastics might be having in the human body as well.
In our article on xenoestrogens, we considered the role of pthalates, in particular, to 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 increase plastic flexibility, and as a result have a myriad of 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, we can imagine that they might also 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 requires urgent research.
We do already have a number of studies on the effects of microplastics on marine life, and the findings are as dire as you might expect. In one study of female fish, the researchers found that the microplastics caused tissue damage, disrupted production of reproductive and sex-specific hormones including 17β-estradiol and testosterone and had noticeable cross-generational effects, stunting the growth of newborn fish, as well as increasing the incubation period and decreasing the rate of hatching. [R] Other studies have documented liver toxicity and various other pathologies in marine life. [R] [R]
Now it’s the turn of xenestrogens, a diverse class of industrial compounds that also mimic the effects of estrogen. What’s more, these chemicals are so ubiquitous that it’s much harder to avoid them than the naturally occurring compounds in your diet.
But why does this matter? Why is having low T such a bad thing?
T is the hormone most associated with masculinity, and although it’s also important to women’s bodies and their health, the increased levels of T in the male body are responsible for the host of traits that make men men, rather than women.
Xenoestrogens interfere with the endocrine systems of both sexes.
Body hair, muscle mass, bone density, strength, aggression, dominance and competitiveness – increases in all of these things are associated with increased T in men.
It’s worth noting that falling T levels are a fact of life for all men as they age; unless you take exogenous T, it’s as unavoidable as taxes and death, I’m afraid. After the age of 30, a man can expect to lose 1% of his T every year for the rest of his life.
But the natural reduction all men can expect to suffer pales in comparison with the society-wide collapse in T levels that has occurred over the second half of the twentieth and the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
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