Elena Liciu analyses the threat of microplastic particle deposits in our bodies.
Photo by Elina Krima
Over the last decade, plastic pollution has been a continuous issue that the scientific community has tried to relentlessly tackle. Whilst we’ve been trying to protect our environment and marine life from plastic waste for decades, we’ve failed to consider that we too are at risk. A newly developed technique has discovered that plastic can also infiltrate the human body as microplastic particles, which build-up around our organs.
The report, released at the beginning of the month, outlines the health risks posed by environmental factors. It reveals that 400,000 deaths in Europe were tied to air pollution in 2012 - the most recent year from which data is available - while noise pollution contributed to 12,000 deaths.
What are Microplatics?
Microplastics are unnoticeably small solid plastic residues measuring less than 5mm in length. They are produced as a result of many day-to-day tasks ranging from tires grinding down on the road, plastic litter disintegration, or simply washing synthetic clothing. As they cannot be seen, smelt, or detected without highly specialised equipment, we are blindly ingesting microplastic particles each day. Professor Kieran Cox from the University of Victoria in Canada has estimated that every individual will intake 100,000 microplastic particles each year.
It is believed that most of the microplastic particles we ingest come from our water supply. Despite being very effective, water treatments can only remove 99.9% of all microplastic particles. This issue was represented in a 2018 World Health Organisation announcement, which stated that 90% of the most purchased water brands contained microplastic particle traces. An infected water supply can create a domino effect of greater microplastic particle exposure. If contaminated water is used on agricultural land, all crops produced will subsequently contain microplastic particles that we will ingest when consuming them.
Effects on Human Health
Analytical techniques reveal that we cannot excrete microplastic particles because their extremely small size makes them undetectable to our body’s filtration system. Instead, they are absorbed into our tissue, where they have the potential to collate and form alarming deposits. This ability to go undetected provides them with the means to leak into the bloodstream or lymphatic system, from which they can freely diffuse to any organ. This was discovered due to data showing traces of microplastic particles in human tissue samples of the liver, kidney, and lungs.
Eriksen’s data notes that fish did not respond to the microplastic particles’ presence in any way, and their body physiology was in no way impacted. It was, however, observed that some individuals experienced blood clots due to particle build-up in the bloodstream. Nonetheless, this was rare and non-repeatable amongst all fish species, making it very possible that these observations may have been caused by other continuing factors.
The experiment more alarmingly concluded that microplastic particle accumulation had a greater chance of causing damage to the offspring of the infected individuals, rather the individuals themselves. It was observed that offspring of fish with microplastic particles deposits had an overall significantly lower reproductive rate.
As of yet, there is no experimental data clearly concluding that exposure to microplastic particles has any impact on human health. They remain classed as only a minimal risk.
Combatting Plastic Waste
The World Health Organisation has only responded to the threat of microplastic particles by encouraging a reduction in plastic waste. Currently, it is estimated that globally, we produce around 322 million tons of plastic each year. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, plastic products such as disposable masks are in even greater demand. We are now exposed to microplastic particles more than ever.
The solution to our problems is simple – fewer plastic products need to be produced. As individuals, we can make a change by easily replacing single-use plastics with reusable alternatives. It’s also imperative to properly dispose of plastic waste and ensure it is properly recycled.
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