Most of us have probably heard about the dangers of microplastic for marine life. In fact, the term microplastic was coined in 2004 by UK marine ecologists who first found them strewn across UK beaches.
Ever since then, it seems microplastics are everywhere, from deep oceans and arctic snow to table salt and bottled water.
Some studies have also found microplastics in human tissue.
These findings have raised alarm bells for many people who worry about the dangers of microplastic. After all, it’s a non-natural, man-made intrusion of the environment, and that can never be good.
With that in mind, let’s see why microplastics are so dangerous, anyway.
Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic that are less than 5 micrometers. Some microplastics are even as small as a few nanometers, which is undetectable not only by the human eye but also by advanced technology.
Since microplastics are essentially plastic, they pose the same environmental and health hazards as plastic: they are non-biodegradable, attract chemical pollutants, and can disrupt wildlife.
But what makes them even more dangerous is their size.
Since microplastics are so small, they usually bypass filtration and easily drain into natural water bodies. Research has found 40% of microplastics aren’t successfully filtered in wastewater treatment plants.
Moreover, since they are virtually invisible to the naked eye, we end up ingesting them without even realizing it.
There are countless sources of microplastics, including regular plastic items that shed off chaffs of microplastics. In fact, there are up to five different kinds of microplastics:
- Fibers that come from fleece clothing, diapers, and cigarette butts.
- Microbeads that are present in facewash, toothpaste, and beauty products.
- Fragments that are like plastic debris that shaves off plastic products and disperses into the environment.
- Nurdles or small plastic pellets that factories use to manufacture plastic products.
- Foam such as styrofoam food containers and coffee cups, which can easily enter our digestive systems.
The existing research on microplastics is surprisingly limited. This makes it difficult to fully understand just how big of a threat they are and how we can avoid this threat.
Call it an exaggeration, but modern civilisation is pretty much dependent on plastic. Most of what we consume contains plastic in one form or the other. Despite what we know about the catastrophic effects of plastic pollution, the thought of a plastic-free future is a utopian fantasy.
There are also a lot of ways that plastic has helped advance humanity. Essential things like clothing, food containers, and hygiene products all contain plastic.
Not only that, but many technological and healthcare developments owe a lot to plastic as well. Without things like disposable syringes and surgical gloves, we wouldn’t have effective medical care. Similarly, things like safety helmets and airbags in cars also use plastic.
Whether we can find an alternative to plastic for these essential purposes is another discussion. The point here is that, for the foreseeable future, plastic is pretty much unavoidable. By extension, so are microplastics.
What’s worse; because of how accustomed we are to using plastic, we often don’t realize that we are active contributors to the microplastic pollution problem. Ultimately, though, our denial about how much plastic we actually use will only worsen it. This is why it’s so important to find sustainable alternatives to plastic, especially when it comes to everyday household items.
In the end, one of the main reasons that microplastics are so dangerous is because they are simply unavoidable.
Most of the research we have today on the nature, presence, and potential risks of microplastics are in the context of marine life. Researchers have found microplastics in the digestive tracts of various marine species, from tiny zooplanktons to whales.
Microplastics easily evade wastewater filtration treatments and end up in rivers, lakes, and oceans. Researchers estimate that there are 24.4 trillion pieces of microplastics in the world’s upper oceans.
The main concern about the presence of microplastics in water bodies is that marine life will inevitably ingest them. Once microplastics enter their systems, they can wreak havoc.
First and foremost, microscopic and small marine life that ingests microplastics will eventually starve, as the plastic makes them feel full. A study revealed how dead sea turtle hatchlings less than three weeks old had up to 42 pieces of plastic in their gastrointestinal tracts.
Another consequence of not eating enough food is on their reproductive health. Research has revealed that animals exposed to microplastics produce smaller eggs that are less likely to hatch.
Plus, as they load up on these zero-nutritional shards of plastic, they could become lodged in the digestive tract and create inflammation.
Another concern is that microplastics act as a sponge and soak up the hydrophobic and chemical pollutants from the surrounding water. Once they become fish food, these toxin sponges can introduce harmful chemicals into the animals’ bodies.
More and more people are expressing their concern over the potential risks of microplastics on our health. Specifically, they are concerned about how much microplastic they are ingesting.
The fact is, you probably eat more plastic than you realize, and it’s mostly in the form of microplastics. Think about how you heat food in the microwave in plastic containers. As it turns out, high temperatures are a good catalyst to break down plastic into microplastic.
Similarly, parents also worry about the presence of microplastics in plastic feeder bottles. Preparing the milk by heating it once again leaks plastic content into the baby’s food.
But the biggest problem is how microplastic is integrated into the food web through marine life.
The truth of the matter, though, is that we don’t nearly consume the amount of microplastics through seafood that would count as dangerous. If the animal did ingest microplastics, we effectively avoid them as we throw away their guts.
Even if you eat the whole animal, as we do with mussels and oysters, you’re at the risk of consuming only 7 micrograms of microplastic per 225 grams serving.
The current research on microplastics and human health is extremely limited. So, it’s difficult to say how dangerous they are for us. For the most part, experts don’t think microplastics pose a grave threat to human health yet.
But all of that could soon change.
We are only just beginning to understand the consequences of microplastics for the environment and our health. The detrimental effects on marine life are already visible, and it’s only a matter of time before things take a turn for the worse for us, too.
The number of microplastics is expected to increase exponentially. As this happens, the effects on human and animal welfare will increase exponentially, too.
Moreover, even if we somehow completely stop producing plastics and microplastics, the amount of microplastic will still increase. This is because other plastic waste will continue to erode into microplastics over decades.
For this reason, microplastics are ticking time bombs. Unless we change our practices, microplastics can wreak havoc.