When humans began mass usage of plastic in the 1940s, it was a miracle and a blessing. It brought more convenience to our lives and some products became more affordable when they were packaged in plastic.
But because plastic isn’t easily biodegradable, the disposal of this polymer has become a massive problem in just a few decades. Particles of plastic less than five millimetres in size are known as microplastics.
They are found in various pro-ducts, but also form when large pieces break down from natural wear and tear. The United Nations estimates that the amount of plastic waste that enters the world’s oceans is at least eight million tonnes.
Fishing gear, buoys, and domestic and industrial waste also contribute to plastic waste. We are seeing videos and news reports about sea animals washing ashore, dead due to ingesting too much human plastic waste.
Our food, water, toiletries, cosmetics, clothes, and even the air that we breathe, contains some level of microplastics that is difficult to avoid.
To determine how much microplastics humans consume, researcher Kieran Cox and his colleagues reviewed 26 existing stu-dies that analysed the levels of microplastic particles in foods like salt, shellfish, added sugars, fish, tap water, bottled water, alcohol and air.
Other foods were not included as the researchers lacked data on them. The researchers then determined the amount of these foods that men, women and children consume from recommended dietary intakes.
From this analysis, which was published in American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology, the researchers estimated that the consumption of microplastics was anywhere from 74,000 to 121,000 particles annually.
They also determined that people who drink only bottled water could potentially be ingesting another 90,000 microplastics every year, versus those who drink mainly tap water.
These values are likely to be underestimated, as the team only considered 15% of a person’s daily caloric intake. Isn’t that kind of scary?
Given that plastic is a polymer not meant for consumption, it would come as a surprise if there are no health consequences to ingesting microplastics. Some of the particles are tiny enough to infiltrate human tissues – this could trigger oxidative stress or release toxic substances that cause cancer.
If they enter the lungs or the digestive tract, that could potentially have other harmful consequences. The picture is still not clear, but while we wait to find out more, let’s take a look at where microplastics are most often found and how we can avoid being exposed to some of it.
Where it comes from
We now know that plastic is not only dangerous to aquatic life in its physical form, but it also interacts with the water. Chemicals leach into the water, attaching themselves to the microplastic particles via a process known as sorption.
Chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, flame retardants and polychlorinated biphenyls, are materials that don’t break down easily and can cause hormone imbalance, as well as produce carcinogens that increase the risk of cancer.
Concentrated exposure brings harm to our health, but we don’t know yet how ingesting them via microplastics can affect us. Here are some ways we may be exposed to microplastics:
● Clothes fibres
Clothes made from 100% cotton are ideal, but not always economical, hence we have so much clothing made from synthetic materials. But the plastic fibres from polyester and acrylic shed when clothing gets washed, and wastewater treatment plants don’t eliminate those fibres before it goes into the oceans.
Plastic particles that are roughly 1mm in diameter are known as microbeads. These are often added to body wash, face scrubs, cleansers, and even toothpaste, to increase their cleaning efficiency.
Researchers in France recently discovered the presence of airborne microplastic particles. If other studies corroborate these findings, then it will become a major health concern for us.
Nurdles are pellets the size of a lentil commonly used by manufacturers to make other plastic items. They are very lightweight and can easily escape from ships or other places they are stored at on land. Aquatic animals often confuse nurdles for food and eat them by mistake.
● Food and drinks
Our food and drinks are quite likely to be contaminated by microplastics, whether due to environmental exposure or because they are commonly packaged in plastic. Microplastic particles can be found in food ingredients like salt, and even the tissues of shellfish and fish sold in our grocery stores. Bottled water is a huge source of microplastic ingestion, but our tap water is not exempt either.
In a 2017 analysis, 83% of water samples from different countries contained plastic fibres. Another 2014 study in Germany found that microplastics were found in 24 German beers that were tested! The plastic was found in the form of grain fragments and fibres.
There’s no denying that plastic is still very important in our lives, including for medical usage. However, seeing the havoc that it can wreak on our health, it’s a good idea to avoid using plastic when we don’t really need it, no matter how convenient it might be.
Here’s an example to start with: bottled water. Drinking water only from plastic bottles could lead you to ingest around 350 particles of microplastic, versus ingesting 16 particles from tap water, just in one day.
When storing food, avoid those cheap plastic takeaway containers and use stainless steel, ceramic or glass containers instead. A set of containers may seem expensive at first, but it will pay off in the long run.
In fact, a stainless steel tiffin carrier is quite affordable, and unlike plastic, stainless steel containers can be put into a reusable bag and kept safely in your car for convenience, without reacting chemically under intense heat.
Scientists are now trying to invent substitutes for plastics that are safer to use and dispose, but this problem will continue to be a challenge for the foreseeable future. For now, we cannot eliminate ingesting microplastics.
We can only reduce the amount we ingest by being conscious of the use of polymers and synthetic materials in our lives.
By Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar
Published in Star Newspaper, SEPTEMBER 9, 2019