What do we really know?


Oct 28, 2022 – You’re eating credit card worth of plastic in a week. It might bother you. But does it hurt you?

The answer depends on who you ask. Certainly, awareness of microplastics in general is increasing; The latest news is the discovery of microplastics in human breast milk. Other research has suggested that we may be consuming up to 5 grams of plastic each week from our food, water, and some consumer products.

The World Health Organization has been publishing reports on microplastics and human health since 2019. Its most recent report was issued in late August 2022.

“Although limited data provide little evidence that nano and molecular plastic particles have adverse effects on humans, there is a growing public awareness and overwhelming consensus among all stakeholders that plastics do not belong to the environment, and measures should be taken to mitigate exposure, WHO said at the time.

The World Health Organization cannot, of course, go beyond what the data shows. If microplastics are causing long-term havoc in our bodies as we speak, science hasn’t connected the dots enough to say definitively”this is Is this a problem.”

But some researchers are willing to speculate – And at the very least, it became impossible to ignore the risks. Dick Vitak, PhD, a researcher in microplastics and emeritus professor of environmental toxicology at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, is blunt, calling them a “plastic time bomb.”

plastic problem

Every piece of plastic ever made is still present on our planet today, regardless of what was burned. Previous estimates suggest that we only recycle about 9% of all plastic, leaving 9 billion tons in landfills, oceans and ecosystems. For context, this amount is 1,500 times heavier than the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

The new data is even scarier. A 2022 report from Greenpeace showed the recycling rate in the United States to be 5% in 2021, with a large portion of what consumers think of as “recycled” still ending up in garbage heaps or bodies of water.

And this plastic does not disappear. Instead, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces known as microplastics and nanoplastics.

Microplastics have been confirmed in human blood, lung and colon tissuesplacenta, feces and breast milk. But how it affects our health is still unknown.

To assess risk, we should ask, “How dangerous are the substances?” says Fleming Cassie, PhD, professor of inhalation toxicology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and co-author of the latest WHO report on microplastics.

There are three potential dangers from microplastics: their physical presence in our bodies, their components, and what they carry. To determine the extent of these risks, we need to know our exposure to them, Cassie says.

The first initiative to research the impact of microplastics on human health came from the European Union in 2018. Although microplastics existed before that time, we were unable to detect them, Cassie says.

This is it truly Problem: Because the evidence is so new – and there hasn’t been enough of it – it is not yet possible to draw definite conclusions.

“But looking into the future, I think we are most likely facing a public health emergency,” Vethaak warns.

What exactly are microplastics?

Microplastics are plastic particles between 5 millimeters and 100 nanometers in diameter, or the width of a pencil eraser and something ten times thinner than a human hair. Anything smaller than that is known as nanoplastic.

“Microplastics include a wide range of different materials, different sizes, different shapes, different densities, and different colours,” Evangelos Danopoulos, PhD, is a microplastics researcher at Hull York Medical School in the UK.

“Primary” microplastics are made to be small and used in things like cosmetics and paints. “Secondary” microplastics result from the decomposition of larger plastics, such as water bottles and plastic bags.

Secondary microplastics are more diverse than primary microplastics and can take shapes ranging from fibers shed from synthetic clothing (such as polyester) to bits from a plastic spoon left in rivers, lakes, and oceans. Any plastic in the environment will eventually become a secondary microplastic as natural forces such as wind, water currents, and UV rays break it down into smaller and smaller pieces.

Plastic is a diverse material. Heather Leslie, PhD, a senior researcher in the Vrije University’s Department of Environment and Health, likens eating it with spaghetti to sauce. Pasta is the long polymer backbone that all plastics have in common. The sauces, she says, are “dyes, antioxidants, flame retardants, etc., which make them practical.”

What makes plastic particles dangerous?

There are more than 10,000 different chemicalsor “sauces” used to change the physical properties of the plastic — making it softer, tougher, or more flexible, says Hana Dossa, PhD, of the Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences at the University of Utrecht.

As plastics degrade and turn into microplastics, it is likely that these chemicals will still be present. Recent research has shown that microplastics leach these chemicals locally in human tissues, or in other areas of accumulation, Dusza says. About 2,400 out of 10,000 chemical additives were classified as substances of potential importance, consistent with EU Standards For persistence, bioaccumulation, or toxicity.

Many of these chemicals also act as endocrine disruptors, or toxins that mimic hormones when they enter the body. Leslie explains that the hormones are active at very low concentrations in the bloodstream. For your body, some of the chemical additives in plastic are like hormones, so the body responds to them.

“Sometimes even a low dose of some of these additives can cause unwanted effects,” Leslie says.

Bisphenol A (BPA)For example, it is one of the most well-known endocrine disruptors. It is used as an additive to make plastic stiffer and can be found in any number of plastic products, although areas of interest have been plastic water bottles, baby bottles, and protective coatings in canned foods.

BPA may mimic estrogen, the female sex hormone essential for reproduction, neurodevelopment, and bone density. Estrogen in men regulates sperm count, sex drive, and erectile function. Exposure to BPA has been linked to — but has not been shown to cause — multiple types of cancer, ADHD, obesity, and low sperm count. Most people have some amount of BPA circulating in their blood, Dusza says, but microplastics may retain BPA as they decompose, which can increase our exposure, leading to its undesirable consequences.

And BPA is just one of 2,400 substances of “potential concern.”

Inflammation problem

A potentially bigger health problem emerges from our bodies once again doing what they’re supposed to do when faced with microplastics. The particles can trigger an immune response when they enter the bloodstream, explains Nienke Vrisekoop, PhD, associate professor at UMC Utrecht in the Netherlands.

White blood cells have no problem breaking down things like bacteria, but microplastics cannot. When a white blood cell ingests a particular mass of microplastic – either many small or large particles – it dies, releasing its enzymes and causing local inflammation.

In the meantime, plastic particles remain. So it attacks more white blood cells.

“This leads to a sustained activation that can lead to various adverse effects, including oxidative stress and the release of cytokines that lead to inflammatory reactions,” Fitak says.

“Chronic inflammation is a precursor to chronic disease,” Leslie says. “Every chronic disease, such as cancer, heart disease, and even neuropsychiatric diseases such as Parkinson’s disease or major depression, It starts with inflammation. ”

Meanwhile, inhalation of microplastic particles can cause يؤدي Respiratory diseases and cancer.

“The smallest particles — less than a tenth of a micrometer — penetrate deep into the lungs and even into the bloodstream, causing damage to the heart, blood vessels and brain,” Vitak says. “The only direct evidence comes from workers in the textile and plastic industries who have been exposed to very high amounts of plastic fibrous dust.”

Microplastics as carriers

Microplastics can also pick up harmful substances and deliver them to your body.

“When they are in an environment, they can basically breastfeed [chemicals] Like a sponge,” says Dusza. “These chemicals are known to be environmental pollutants, such as pesticides, fluorinated compounds, flame retardants, etc.”

Once in the body, these chemicals can be released, which can lead to cancer, chronic inflammation, or other unknown effects.

The particles can also act as a vector for microbes, bacteria, and viruses. September 2022 دراسة Study have found Infectious viruses can survive for 3 days in fresh water by “walking” on microplastics. Its porous nature provides microbes with an ideal environment to live and reproduce in, Dosa says. If you swallow plastic, you are swallowing microbes.

How to reduce exposure

There is no way to avoid plastic particles. It’s in the air we breathe, the products we use, the water we drink, and the food we eat.

Danopoulos reviewed 72 studies to estimate our consumption of microplastics in drinking water, salt and seafood.

“We are exposed to millions of microplastics every year, and I was only looking at three food sources, so there’s really a lot,” he says. “Once plastic waste is mismanaged and enters the environment, there is little we can do to extract it.”

So he said, We can take steps to reduce our exposure and prevent the problem from getting worse.

Water filtration is one option, although it is not ideal. Research has shown that municipal water treatment can be effective. Study October 2021 It was found that two methods – electrocoagulation – electrophoresis and membrane filtration – can be 100% effective in removing microplastics from treated water. the problem? Not all municipal water treatment operations use these methods – and you will have to investigate to see if your area uses these methods.

As for at-home filtration methods, they can be effective but can also be suspicious. Some consumer brands claim to remove microplastics, but how much they do depends not only on the type of filter but the size of the particles in the water. Meanwhile, how do you know if a filter is working on your water without testing it, something few people will do? It is better not to accept the brand’s claims about face value, but to look for it independent test On brands at home.

Long-term project: reducing risks by reusing and recycling plastic waste. Reducing our consumption of plastics, especially single-use plastics, reduces the amount available to them as micro and microplastics.

Cassie says we should all learn not to treat plastic as waste, but rather as a renewable material. But if that sounds like a long request, that’s because it is.

“You’re human and you have a voice and there are a lot of other humans who have voices,” says Leslie.

“You sign a petition in your community. You talk about it with your friends at the pub. If you’re a teacher, you discuss it in your class. You call your elected representatives and tell them what you think and how you want them to vote on bills.”

When people start working together, you can really amplify that sound, says Leslie.

What is the minimum now, today?

Many sources have declared that microplastics do not affect human health. But this is largely due to the lack of direct evidence of this yet.

Even the World Health Organization in its report refers to this progress Should It occurs if we fully understand the scope of the problem.

“Strengthening the evidence needed for reliable characterization and quantification of risks to human health posed by NMP (micro and nanoplastics) will require the active participation of all stakeholders,” she says.

All researchers interviewed for this article agree that we do not have sufficient evidence to draw any definite conclusions. But “If you look at the wrong endpoints, things will look safe, until you look at the endpoint where they’re really causing the problem,” Leslie says.

We must look into our blind spots and constantly ask, Where can we be wrong?

its a problem; Danopoulos says. “It’s going to get worse, and it will keep getting worse, not because of something we’re doing now but by something we did 5 years ago.”

The question to ask is probably the hardest answer: Are we ready to wait for science?

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