Microplastics and the Human health
The history of plastics began in 1862 when Alexander Parkes introduced the first-ever man-made plastic at the London International Exhibition. However, it wasn’t until the nineteen-fifties that plastic’s mass production started. Along the past seventy years, humankind produced over eight billion metric tons of plastic, out of which only 9% has been recycled and 12% incinerated… which leads us the question: what happened with the remaining 79%? Well, the rest – by far the larger percentage – has been accumulated either in landfill sites or in the natural environment, ultimately in rivers, streams, and oceans. The greatest and most visible concentration of plastic waste in the ocean is located between California and Hawaii, and measures approximately three times the size of France. Yet, this is still a minor problem compared to what we designate as microplastics, the ones we do not see.
Plastic is not biodegradable, as most people know, but it breaks down into smaller pieces until it reaches the stage of microplastics, which have a diameter of less than five millimetres. At the present time it is estimated that there are trillions of microplastic particles in the marine environment. Microplastic pollution is a situation of great concern because of their widespread presence in the oceans and the potential physical and toxicological risks they pose to organisms (both marine and non-marine). These micro-polymers are ingested by a wide range of animals (from small invertebrates to large mammals) which ultimately means that these particles are present in the food chain, in what we eat every day. Humans are exposed to them via ingestion, inhalation and dermal absorption. Most recently their existence in human blood was proved, being present in 80% of the people tested. Moreover, research shows that microplastics can travel around our body and lodge in our organs.
The impacts of these tiny particles in human health are still widely unexplored, which is also the case when speaking about the environment, but scientists predict that it can cause damage to human cells, just as much as air pollution already does. The main consequences might be toxicity through oxidative stress (imbalance between free radical activity and antioxidant activity which can lead to tissue, DNA and proteins damage) and inflammatory lesions (particularly when inflammation becomes chronic). Several studies conducted also demonstrated the potential of causing metabolic disturbances, neurotoxicity (damage in the nervous system), and increased cancer risk. Nevertheless, as previously mentioned, these results must be confirmed by further research, quantifying the effects of microplastics on human health.
Microplastics are omnipresent, and it is impossible to avoid them completely as we cannot stop eating, drinking, dressing or even breathing – the most we can do is trying to reduce our intake of them. The main problem with plastic does not rely on its production but on its single-use, which is the first thing that must be changed. The second should be to put pressure on government, national and international policy makers to change legislations and protect the uninformed consumer. This happened in the United States, with Barack Obama signing a bill outlawing the sale and distribution of toothpaste and exfoliating or cleansing products containing microbeads (a type of microplastics). The UK, Canada and New Zealand followed this action and approved new legislation on this specific type of microplastics. Furthermore, we may also make some changes in our routine, such as: avoiding heating-up food in plastic containers; drinking filtered tap water; cutting out takeaway cups (even the paper ones); avoiding the most harmful types of plastic (i.e., those with the recycling codes 3, 6 ,7); using plastic-free cosmetics; replacing tea bags with loose-leaf tea; installing a fibre-catching filter in your laundry machine and, dusting and vacuuming regularly to avoid inhaling these particles.
The impacts of microplastics in human health are relatively unknown, but there is one thing clear: excessive intake of these synthetic particles does not benefit us. Governments should support more investigation and research programs in these areas and voters should make use of their rights (and duties) to make this happen. Until there are clear conclusions about the risks and hopefully new and more effective solutions, we should aim to reduce our contact with microplastics as much as possible.
Documentary: “A plastic Ocean”
TedTalks: “Microplastics are everywhere – but we can do something about them”