In 2016, we produced over 220 million tons of plastic. And the number will double by 2034. What’s even more alarming is, we have been killing 100,000 marine animals and 1 million seabirds every year (1).
220 million tons. That’s the weight of 440 Burj Khalifas or 600 Empire State Buildings – all made of concrete and steel. These small and barely visible pieces of plastic pollute the environment. And the chances are high that they will enter the ecosystem and into our food, only to be consumed by us. Guess what – as you are reading this, close to 100,000 plastic bottles are made in various parts of the world. And 91% of them are never recycled (2).
There is a lot more that indicates how critical the situation is. So, how do we stop it all? This article has the answers.
Table Of Contents
- What Are Microplastics?
- How Do Microplastics Enter The Human Ecosystem?
- How Can Microplastics Harm Your Body?
- What Are The Potential Health Risks Of Microplastics?
- How Can We Reduce Microplastics In The Environment?
What Are Microplastics?
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, microplastics are tiny plastic pieces less than 5 millimeters in length (3). They are created when larger plastics are disintegrated in the environment. They are also specifically manufactured as microbeads that are added to toothpastes and exfoliants.
Microplastics are commonly found in the oceans and seas, rivers and soil – and are often consumed by animals – causing them harm and leading to their eventual death. Studies show that over 8.8 million tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans every year (4). This is one reason marine animals are at a higher risk.
Microplastics are thought to enter the ecosystem primarily through fertilizers. Sewage sludge is used in many countries to fertilize agricultural fields. This sludge may contain microplastics in the form of microbeads found in cosmetics that would have been washed down through the bathroom sink.
This is just one of the ways – we are yet to find out how else microplastics are getting into the human ecosystem and how they may potentially harm human health.
How Do Microplastics Enter The Human Ecosystem?
Scientists have found microplastics in our tap water, bottled water, beer, and worse, even in the air we breathe (5). Studies have also found microplastics in sea salt, after examining 15 different brands (6). They were even found in honey.
The most common carriers of microplastics seem to be seafood, given that these particles are more common in the oceans. Marine animals often mistake plastic for food, leading to the accumulation of toxic particles in their livers. Even deep-sea organisms were found to contain microplastics (7).
Among seafood, shellfish like mussels and oysters had ingested more microplastics than any other species (8). This means if you are a shellfish eater, as per studies, you might be ingesting close to 11,000 microplastic fibers in a year.
How Can Microplastics Harm Your Body?
How microplastics can harm your health is still being studied. But most of these particles may contain phthalates, chemicals used to make plastic flexible. Phthalates may increase the risk of breast cancer (9). These particles may also pass into the blood from the intestines and eventually into the organs.
In yet another study, 87% of the human lungs studied contained microplastics – potentially possible through inhalation of microplastics in the air (10).
Microplastics may cause a few deadly ailments.
What Are The Potential Health Risks Of Microplastics?
1. May Cause Cancer
Research states that the unhealthy additives in microplastics may cause cancer. These additives include trace metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and polychlorinated biphenyls (11). They also contain BPA (bisphenol A), another chemical that has been linked to cancer in humans (12).
2. Can Harm Your Lungs
Certain microplastics can remain in the lungs, leading to inflammation and other severe issues. Some such microplastics were also found to have carcinogenic properties (13).
Even microplastics that emanate from vehicle tires can enter the air and settle in our lungs. Studies done on patients with lung cancer found slightly higher levels of plastic microfibers in their lung tissues (14).
3. Can Cause Oxidative Stress And Neural Damage
Studies show how microplastics can cause oxidative stress and even result in neurotoxicity (15). As per a study conducted by Lund University, microplastics in water may end up in the fish brain – causing serious brain damage (16). Though studies are ongoing, the same effects may be possible in humans too – and that is something we wouldn’t want.
4. May Cause Gingivitis
This has got a lot to do with the microplastics in toothpastes. Also called microbeads, these tiny particles in toothpastes can get stuck in your gingival sulcus – which is the area where the teeth and gums meet (17). This can trap bacteria and cause gingivitis over time. As these microbeads are not biodegradable, they can even lead to periodontal disease.
These are some of the serious health risks microplastics pose for humanity today. Unfortunately, the list only seems to get longer by the day. Can we do anything to stop any of this?
Well, we can. Removing every ounce of plastic from the oceans and the earth’s womb will take time – probably several decades. And we don’t know how much more plastic waste would find its way into the oceans by then.
The cycle will continue. But it is important we do our bit, no matter how small – because it all starts with us. With you.
How Can We Reduce Microplastics In The Environment?
Making little changes to our daily decisions can go a long way. This is what all of us, as individuals, can do.
- Do Away With Single-Use Plastics. Also called disposable plastics, these include grocery bags, plastic wraps, plastic straws, coffee-cup lids, and disposable cutlery. Replace such plastics with reusable variants.
- Stop Buying Bottled Water. Did you know that close to 20 billion plastic bottles are tossed into the trash every year? You can carry a reusable bottle in your bag to prevent this.
- Cook At Home, More Often. This way, you can prevent the use of takeout containers and plastic spoons and forks. In case you are ordering out, you can tell the restaurant that you don’t need any plastic cutlery.
- Carry Your Own Grocery Bag. Most grocery stores pack the purchased groceries in plastic bags. You can avoid these by carrying your own bags.
- Try To Avoid Products Containing Microbeads. These are usually found in toothpastes, facial scrubs, and body washes. They enter the oceans through our sewer systems, causing harm to marine animals. Look for words like ‘polythene’ and ‘polypropylene’ on the ingredient labels of cosmetic products – those are the microbeads.
- Support Plastic Bans. Many legislative bodies around the world have passed laws to ban plastics. You can support them and also spread awareness.
Microplastics are a mega problem. The best time to act was ten years ago. The next best time is now. You saw the threats microplastics can pose to our environment and us. We hope you will be a part of this fight – the fight to protect our world.
Let’s spread awareness. Let’s make this world a better place. If you have any more inputs,
please leave a comment in the box below.
- “Facts and figures on marine pollution”. UNESCO.
- “A whopping 91% of the plastic isn’t recycled”. National Geographic.
- “What are microplastics?” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
- “Marine pollution. Plastic waste inputs from land…”. Science, US National Library of Medicine.
- “Microplastic contamination in an urban area…”. Centre Pour La Communication Scientifique Directe.
- “Microplastic pollution in table salts from China”. Environmental Science & Technology, US National Library of Medicine.
- “Plastic microfibre ingestion by deep-sea organisms”. Scientific Reports, US National Library of Medicine.
- “Microplastics in bivalves cultured for…”. Environmental Pollution, US National Library of Medicine.
- “Phthalates induce proliferation and…”. FASEB Journal, US National Library of Medicine.
- “Inhaled cellulosic and plastic fibers…”. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, & Prevention, US National Library of Medicine.
- “Microplastics in our nation’s waterways”. United States Geological Survey.
- “The missing science: Could our addiction to plastic…”. UNC School of Medicine.
- “Microplastics in air: Are we breathing…”. ScienceDirect.
- “Wear and tear of tyres…”. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, US National Library of Medicine.
- “Microplastics cause neurotoxicity…”. ScienceDirect.
- “Brain damage in fish from plastic nanoparticles in water”. ScienceDaily.
- “Microbeads and environmental health”. Congress of the United States, Committee on Energy and Commerce.
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