Plastic Free July: Microplastics, why worry?
You’ve probably spotted reports of microplastic presence in the news this Plastic Free July, but what exactly are they? And should we be worried about them?
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic, smaller than 5mm, whereas nanoplastics are less than 100 nanometres long. Microplastics are divided into two types: primary and secondary microplastics:
- Primary microplastics can include microbeads in shower gels and nylon in clothing.
- Secondary microplastics often break down from larger plastics due to sunlight and weathering.
But microplastics from all kinds of synthetic products are a worldwide problem. Research by the not-for-profit Orb Media found that 83% of waters sampled were contaminated with microplastic fibres.
So, how concerned should we be?
While the presence of plastic throughout the planet is not in doubt, our understanding about the effects of microplastics on the environment, wildlife and human health isn’t as clear.
Researchers have been worried about the effects of microplastics for over 20 years, but studies have mostly focused on marine life. Now, it’s estimated that children and adults may ingest anywhere from dozens to more than 100,000 microplastic specks every day.
Studies are ongoing into the effect on human health: a 2020 study of deceased people’s organs uncovered dozens of types of microplastic. BPA, which has been associated with cancer, was detected in all of the samples, which were taken from organs such as the lungs, kidney and liver.
However nanoplastics cause the most concern among researchers. Some could have the potential to enter cells and potential disrupt their activity, inflaming the body’s tissues and possibly bringing chemical toxicity.