Tonight On The Menu: Plastic Stew With A Glass Of Plastic
Plastic pollution is so prevalent in the environment that a person consumes five grams or one credit card per week. The key question now is whether this is dangerous and what the consequences may be for human health - in the short and long term.
The potential effect could be exceptionally large, but so far there is no reason to panic, say the World Health Organization, referring to the results of an analysis of several separate studies on microplastics in water. But not because it has been proven that it does not harm us, but because there is a lack of data and evidence to the contrary. The topic is new and has been in the focus of scientists recently, so more detailed and reliable research is yet to be done, and it remains to be seen whether humanity will not find itself under a new serious threat born of its own "progress."
Plastic does not degrade. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller particles over time. However, the fact that we know this very well does not prevent us from producing huge quantities of it - over 400 million tons per year. The smallest pieces of plastic, which are no longer visible to the eye, find their way into our bodies.
For example, they enter the water reservoirs through the so-called city dust - the particles are carried by shoes, cars, etc., but also through the sewer - fibres of artificial fabrics released during washing, nanoparticles in cosmetics, etc., as well as from the decomposition of plastic waste into the reservoirs.
In the more developed world, drinking water sources are, of course, purified before the water reaches people, but hundreds of millions of people globally do not have that "extra".
But it's not just water. In more heavily polluted areas, one can inhale plastic nanoparticles carried in the air. They also stick to food and are excreted in beverages through packaging. Seafood is particularly vulnerable, as parts of the oceans are heavily polluted. Mussels are the riskiest, but microscopic plastic particles are found in fish and molluscs and even in sea salt.
A study by a team from the Medical University of Vienna, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, shows that microplastics are in the stool samples of volunteers from different geographical locations - Japan, Russia, the Netherlands, Britain, USA, Italy, Poland, Finland and Austria. In all of them, there are particles in different concentrations of nine different types of plastics with sizes from 50 to 500 micrometres. The most common are polypropylene (the second most produced plastic in the world, widely used for packaging) and polyethene terephthalate (or so-called PET, which is used for artificial fibres for clothing, packaging for food and beverages and others. ).
It is not clear what the microparticles are in the volunteers' samples, nor how they were ingested - through food, water or air. But because there have been different types of plastic, researchers suspect that the sources are different and range from food and beverage packaging to seafood. None of the volunteers were vegetarians, and six out of eight, for example, reported consuming ocean fish.
Apparently, the slightly larger plastic particles pass harmlessly through our bodies through the excretory system. But the smallest particles remain in our body.
Some nanoparticles are small enough that they can theoretically pass through the intestinal wall, enter the circulatory system, and pass into other organs. However, whether this happens or not and whether it affects a person's health remains unknown.
The WHO report, which examines the problem of microplastics in water, outlines three possible scenarios under which nanoparticles can affect human health:
- Physical: may penetrate important organs and damage internal structures
- Chemical: Harmful additives in plastics such as plasticizers can be released
- Biofilm: microorganisms can attach to microplastics and form colonies, which can cause harm to the body.
The report concludes that the evidence for all three scenarios is very limited, with the latter two being the least worrying. As for the first scenario, animal studies have shown that our bodies can absorb very small microplastic particles. However, the WHO report explains that these studies used "extremely high exposures that would not normally occur in a real environment".
However, the data at their disposal are also limited for the time being, so research on the topic is still pending. "We urgently need to know more about the impact of microplastics on health, because they are everywhere - including in our drinking water," explains Dr. Maria Neira, director of the WHO's Department of Public Health.
"More research is needed to reaffirm the findings, as well as urgent research into the origins of human-accepted microplastics, the potential for intestinal absorption and the effects on human health," wrote the team of scientists led by Dr Philipp Schwalb of the Medical University of Vienna, who studied the faeces of volunteers.
“We over-use plastics because they are inexpensive and convenient, and worldwide, ecosystems are suffering, and contaminating-levels of plastic debris is a concern that has been reported. Plastic must be managed (especially in single-use items) and recycled such that it is finally fragmented to small plastics. Most of the contamination by microplastics and nanoplastics is derived from laundering synthetic textiles and the friction from the tires of driven cars. Currently, there is no effective way to reduce the number of microplastics and nanoplastics in the food chain. Furthermore, it is unclear how the mixture of different sized groups and material types interacts with living creatures. Previous studies have indicated that workers in plastic-related industries suffer many kinds of cancer by being exposed to high levels of airborne microplastics over many years. In addition, it is important to characterize the microplastics and nanoplastics that have accumulated in the food chain and to gain a clearer understanding of their negative impact on our bodies. Finally, the degradation of microplastics and nanoparticles from environmental bacteria and fungi remains a challenge for the scientific community.” - International Journal of Molecular Science
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