Tiny but Mighty: Impact of Microplastics on Human Health
Did you know, according to a study published in a journal, individuals could be ingesting and inhaling an average of 50,000 microplastic particles each year? We are living in a world where our eyes often guide us to perceive danger, but an unseen threat has silently encroached upon our lives. Let’s just picture this: microscopic warriors, invisible yet mighty, silently traversing our environment, infiltrating our bodies, and leaving a lasting impact on our health.
Do you wonder what these would be?
They are not silent culprits, but rather microplastics – tiny pieces of plastics that are now ubiquitous in our modern world.
We often envision plastic as tangible objects, something we can hold and dispose of when no longer needed. More than the plastics that we use in our day-to-day lives, the effects of microplastic pollution are enormous on the environment and on human health. It is crucial that we no longer ignore the reality that these microscopic invaders may pose a serious threat to our health.
While we forge a path towards a plastic-free future, these tiny-sized microplastics pose a mighty impact on human health.
Read on to know more interesting, yet perilous aspects of microplastics.
Introduction to Microplastics
Microplastics are tiny plastic particles smaller than 5 mm (0.2 inches in length) in size, often invisible to the naked eye. Microplastics are made up of carbon and hydrogen atoms joined together in long chains called polymers. These tiny particles can also contain additional chemicals like phthalates, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA). When microplastics enter the environment, these chemical additives have the tendency to separate from the plastic particles and mix into the surroundings.
Plastic debris, microbeads from personal care products, and textile fibers are some of the sources of these microplastics.
Where can we find Microplastics?
Microplastics are prevalent in our environment on a global scale. It is common to find microplastics in a wide range of sources, both in natural and man-made environments.
Here are some common places where we can find microplastics:
- Oceans and Water Bodies: Microplastics have become pervasive in our oceans, seas, and other water bodies like lakes, rivers, and streams. Microplastics enter water bodies through runoff, direct disposal, or fragmentation. These tiny plastics can have adverse effects on aquatic organisms and disrupt ecological balance.
- Soil and Sediments: Microplastics can also contaminate soil and sediments through various means, such as wind, agricultural practices, and wastewater irrigation. Soil microplastic pollution is contributed to by plastic film mulching, shedding synthetic fibers from textiles, and the dumping of plastic waste can contribute to soil microplastic pollution.
- Air: Microplastics have been detected in both outdoor and indoor environments and in the air we breathe. Airborne microplastics can be created when tires wear, by the accumulation of road dust, industrial processes, and by the production of microplastic-containing products. They can be spread over long distances and settle in remote areas away from their source.
- Food and Beverages: Microplastics have been detected in various food and beverage items, such as seafood, drinking water, salt, honey, and even beer. Microplastics can also contaminate food during processing and packaging.
- Various Organisms: Microplastics have been detected in many different types of creatures, including marine animals, birds, and land animals. These tiny particles can be eaten by animals or get stuck in their bodies, causing harm to their physical well-being, damaging organs, and disrupting normal biological functions.
Being aware of the sources, pathways, and potential risks that microplastics pose to our well-being and help us work towards effective solutions that can safeguard our health and the habitat we live in.
What are Microplastics?
Microplastics are tiny plastic particles measuring less than 5 millimeters in size. They appear in a variety of shapes, including fragments, fibers, and microbeads. These tiny pollutants originate from diverse sources, primarily from the breakdown of larger plastic items, such as packaging materials and synthetic textiles. Moreover, microplastics are intentionally added to numerous products including fertilizers, plant protection products, household and industrial detergents, and cleaning products. They are even added to personal care and cosmetic products as microbeads, which serve as exfoliants or texturizing agents.
Types of Microplastics
Microplastics are classified into two types which include, primary microplastics and secondary microplastics.
- Primary Microplastics refer to small plastic particles that are intentionally produced and used for specific purposes. These particles are already in a microplastic form when they enter the environment. Examples of primary microplastics include microbeads commonly found in personal care products, plastic pellets (nurdles) used in industrial manufacturing processes, and plastic fibers used in synthetic (nylon) textile industries.
- Secondary Microplastics are formed through the degradation and fragmentation of larger plastic items. Large plastic items, such as plastic bottles or bags, undergo various natural processes, such as weathering, wave action, wind abrasion, and exposure to sunlight’s ultraviolet radiation. Over time, these larger plastics break down into smaller particles, resulting in secondary microplastics. These particles are labeled as secondary since they result from the breakdown of pre-existing plastic materials.
Why should we care about microplastics?
Have you ever wondered what harm these invisible invaders can cause to our bodies?
Over the years, extensive research has uncovered the pervasive presence of microplastics in various components of the human body. These tiny plastic particles have been documented in the human lung and in maternal and fetal placental tissues too. Furthermore, microplastics have been found in human breast milk and even circulating in the bloodstream. It is frightening to realize how deeply microplastics have infiltrated our very being, raising serious concerns about the consequences on our health and well-being.
Microplastics in Humans
Although the full impact of microplastics on human health remains to be researched, emerging studies indicate potential danger. It is possible that microplastics may contain harmful chemicals that can be ingested and released into the body. They have been found to accumulate in organs and tissues, potentially leading to inflammation, oxidative stress, and disruption of physiological processes.
- Widespread contamination: Microplastics are found in the deepest trenches of our oceans to the remotest corners of untouched landscapes. They are even present in the air we breathe. The primary mode of exposure occurs through the consumption of food and water that have been contaminated with microplastics. Potential sources of microplastic contamination include seafood, bottled water, and even common table salt.
- Infiltration Pathways: Microplastics make their way into our bodies through multiple avenues, such as ingestion, inhalation, and dermal absorption. However, Ingestion is a primary route, as these particles can contaminate our food and water sources.
- Potential health consequences: Studies have revealed that microplastics have the ability to migrate from the gastrointestinal tract to reach vital organs such as the liver, kidneys, and breach the intricate barrier shielding the brain.
The points mentioned above emphasize the importance of addressing potential risks associated with dietary choices concerning microplastic exposure.
In summary, there is substantial evidence that microplastics pose a significant threat to human health. While further research is needed to fully understand the long-term consequences, we must not overlook the potential risks associated with their ingestion. The widespread presence of microplastics emphasizes the urgent need to address their release into the environment. The environmental impact of microplastics is a growing concern, particularly due to their significant influence on human health and the increased risk of various health conditions.
To mitigate their impact and work towards a cleaner and healthier environment for future generations, it is crucial to understand the classification of microplastics based on size and sources. By recognizing common examples like plastic degradation and microbeads, we can take meaningful steps to reduce their effects. This requires collaborative efforts from individuals, industries, and policymakers to develop strategies that reduce the production and release of microplastics, which pose a threat to human lives. Adopting sustainable practices is essential in our pursuit of a healthier and plastic-free future.
Question and Answers:
1. When were microplastics discovered?
In 2004, Professor Richard Thompson and his team made a groundbreaking discovery, revealing that tiny plastic particles known as microplastics have been accumulating in the oceans since the 1960s and can now be found worldwide. Coined by Professor Thompson, the term “microplastic” describes these small plastic pieces measuring less than 5 millimeters in size.
2. What is the difference between microbeads and microplastics?
Microbeads are a specific type of microplastics, while microplastics encompass a broader category of small plastic particles. Microbeads refer to tiny spherical particles intentionally added to certain personal care and cosmetic products for exfoliation or texturizing purposes. On the other hand, microplastics include various small plastic fragments, fibers, particles, and microbeads that originate from sources like the breakdown of larger plastics and industrial manufacturing.
3. Can microplastics increase the risk of cancer?
Ingested microplastics can cause inflammation, DNA damage, and potentially promote cancer. They can carry toxic chemicals and pollutants, such as pesticides and flame retardants, into the body, which may lead to chronic inflammation, cancer, and other unknown effects. Microplastics are derived from petrochemicals and contain carcinogenic or mutagenic substances, potentially increasing the risk of cancer and DNA damage.
4. How do plastics break down into microplastics?
Plastic degradation in the environment plays a significant role in the generation of microplastics. Over time, larger plastic items exposed to sunlight, water, and physical stress break down into smaller particles, eventually reaching the size range of microplastics.
5. How do microplastics affect the Earth’s temperature?
Recent studies have revealed the remarkable behavior of microplastics as they interact with sunlight and the atmosphere. Once airborne, these tiny plastic particles can travel long distances and impact cloud formation. This influence on clouds has far-reaching implications, potentially affecting temperature, rainfall patterns, and even the overall climate. The specific impact on temperature depends on factors such as the number of particles, their altitude within the atmosphere, and other complex variables.