‘They’re everywhere’: Microplastics in oceans, air and human body

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BREATHING IN PLASTICS FOR YEARS

In 2021, researchers found microplastics in both maternal and foetal placental tissue, expressing “great concern” over the possible consequences on the development of the foetus.

But concern is not the same as a proven risk.

“If you ask a scientist if there is a negative effect, he or she would say ‘I don’t know’,” said Bart Koelmans, professor in Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality at Wageningen University.

“It’s potentially a big problem, but we don’t have the scientific evidence to positively confirm what are the effects, if any.”

One hypothesis is that microplastics could be responsible for certain syndromes that weaken human health.

While scientists have recently identified their presence in the body, it is likely that humans have been eating, drinking and breathing in plastics for years.

In 2019, a shock report by the environmental charity WWF estimated that people are ingesting and inhaling up to five grams of plastic per week, enough to make a credit card.

Koelmans, who contests the methodology and results of that study, has calculated the amount is closer to a grain of salt.

“Over a lifetime, a grain of salt per week is still quite something,” he told AFP.

While health studies on humans have yet to be developed, toxicity in certain animals reinforces concerns.

“Small microplastics invisible to the naked eye have deleterious effects on all the animals that we have studied in the marine environment, or on land,” said Ghiglione.

He added that the array of chemicals found in these materials, including dyes, stabilisers, flame retardants, can affect growth, metabolism, blood sugar, blood pressure and even reproduction.

The researcher said there should be a “precautionary” approach, urging consumers to reduce the number of plastic-packaged products they buy, particularly bottles.

Earlier this year, the United Nations began a process to develop an internationally binding treaty to tackle the global plastic scourge.

It has warned that the world is facing a pollution crisis to match the biodiversity and climate crises.

While the health implications from plastics are not known, scientists do know the impacts of indoor and outdoor air pollution, which experts from the Lancet Commission on pollution and health have estimated caused 6.7 million people to suffer an early death in 2019.

About 460 million tonnes of plastics were used in 2019, twice as much as 20 years earlier. Less than 10 per cent was recycled.

Annual production of fossil-fuel-based plastics is set to top 1.2 billion tonnes by 2060, with waste exceeding one billion tonnes, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said last month.

“People cannot stop breathing, so even if you change your eating habits you will still inhale them,” said Koelmans.

“They’re everywhere.”

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