Humanosity says…The first series of the Blue Planet on the BBC caused a stir, not because of the beautiful cinematography and the excellent Sir David Attenborough but because it demonstrated the damage that plastic pollution was doing to the oceans. However, plastics, especially microplastics have been showing up everywhere, blowing through the air we breathe, the food we eat and water we drink.
The potential effect of this on human health is huge and the scary thought is that the science on this is still in its infancy. “What we don’t know is enormous,” according to University of Strathclyde environmental pollution scientist Deonie Allen. So we decided to scour the web for the latest research and have put together a summary below. It doesn’t make good reading.
The Scale of the Problem
As things stand more than 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year. At least 50% of the plastic produced each year will be thrown away within a year. Currently, only 9% of plastic is recycled meaning that the remaining 91% will end up as waste and looking at the graph below, it’s waste that’s going to be around for a while.
Microplastics In Drinking Water
Let me start with the good news. When it comes to microplastics in our drinking water The World Health Organisation released a report recently on what the latest research says about the problem.
One of the report’s authors Bruce Gordon says “we know from the data that we’ve reviewed that we’re ingesting them, and we know that’s caused concern among consumers,” He goes on to state that based on the little they know they couldn’t find evidence that microplastics in drinking water posed a threat to our health. “The headline message is to reassure drinking-water consumers around the world that based on our assessment of the risk, that it is low.”
When it comes to water there are a lot of other contaminants that the world is and should be more worried about. They also note that the water treatment processes used in most developed nations will catch some of the larger plastic particles.
However, that’s about all the good news I can offer as the report goes on to add a warning. It states that more research on the effects on microplastics on human health is needed and because of the extent of the pollution that research needs to be done fast.
In The Air We Breathe
Microplastics, especially in the form of small fibres from synthetic clothing is not only found in our drinking water it is in the very air we breathe and the scary thought is no-one understands what the potential health impacts are of breathing in these plastic microfibres.
Around 16% of the plastic produced annually in the world consists of textile fibres and that equates to about 60 million tons per year. The vast majority of this is found in synthetic clothing.
Washing a fleece jacket, for instance, releases up to 250,000 microplastic fibres into the wastewater, according to a 2016 study by the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California Santa Barbara.
As you run in your leggings or favourite football team’s shirt, tiny particles are detaching and becoming airborne. the same is true of the plastic soles on your shoes, even the tires of the car you drive or the bus you’re sitting on.
The concentration of fibres in the air is highest indoors rather than outdoors. Analysis of the airborne fibres found in typical indoor setting suggests that about 29% of them are plastic. The good news is that most of what we breathe in we breathe out again.
The bad news is that plastic has been found in lung tissue and no-one knows how the body reacts to these contaminants which are likely to remain there for your whole life.
According to a team of French researchers there are a number of potential health effects that need to be urgently investigated as all types of fibres seem able to cause infections when they reach a certain concentration. They also note that workers who handle textile fibres have a higher incidence of lung disease.
In the Food We Eat
According to a report published in Environmental Pollution the microplastics that are floating around in the air land on the food you eat. The researchers placed Petri dishes next to dinner plates in several homes and found that each dish accumulated around 14 pieces of plastic over a period of 20mins.
They extrapolated that each diner was probably 100 pieces of plastic during each meal and that equates to around 70,000 pieces a year. The WHO report mentioned earlier found that most of these particles will pass through us harmlessly but that more research was needed on how the size of particles might affect absorption by the gut. Also, they point to the chemicals that plastic leach out and the organisms like bacteria and viruses that find a home on the particles.
Because there’s so little research on the potential health effects available it’s hard to judge what impact all this plastic we’re ingesting is having on our health. However “there cannot be no effect,” according to Pete Myers, adjunct professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University. he states that it’s likely that we are being exposed to chemicals that are found in plastic that are already known to be harmful.
The effect of the Blue Planet was such that in 2017 the United Nations passed a resolution to stop plastic waste getting into our oceans. It looks like one of its next priorities will be to persuade member states to stop the flow of plastic particles into the air we breathe.
In the meantime, there’s an urgent need for wide-ranging and in-depth research as a matter of urgency.