MACROPLASTICS: HOW DOES IT AFFECT OUR HEALTH?
Plastic pollution is a global problem that impacts all of humanity and our ecosystem. In the last decade, plastic has affected people's lives and health at very high levels, which calls into question the use of plastic in everyday life. Many of the natural materials that were used earlier such as paper or cotton have been replaced by plastic.
The entire life cycle of plastic has a negative impact on humans. From the extraction of the produce to the time it reaches the store shelves where it is purchased, then getting consumed by humans and thrown as garbage waste in most cases it ends up either on land or landfills where it gets mismanaged and is unable to be disposed of, massively affecting the air, water and soil.
This material is destined from birth to infinity to be toxic to us. We drink, inhale and ingest up to 5 grams of plastic per week. This contamination comes from "microplastics" which are less than 5mm in diameter and cannot be seen with the naked eye. A study done in Newcastle, Australia says that we ingest nearly 2,000 microplastic particles per week. These small parts come from many sources such as fibers from synthetic clothes, microbeads from toothpaste or even large pieces of plastic that gradually rub off and disintegrate into smaller pieces. Many additives that are thrown in to achieve a certain attribute such as stability, hardness or even color are chemicals identified as harmful to human health because they disrupt our hormonal system. Some of the most common additives found in plastics are:
- Bisphenol A (BPA), which is used in bottles, food liners, plastic containers and many others, plays a major role in hormonal disruption.
- Phthalates, which are also known as 2-benzenedicarboxylic acids, from which children's toys are mostly produced, is known as a chemical that disrupts the endocrine system and disrupts hormones, causing birth defects, rhinitis and eczema, especially in children.
- Brominated flame retardants such as tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) are present in thermoplastic electronic products such as computers, telephones, televisions and textiles. Because they are not chemically bound to plastic polymers, this makes it easy for these substances to leach out and contaminate the environment. Retardants are hormone disruptors that stimulate the activity of thyroid hormones and estrogen causing harmful development in the nervous and reproductive systems.
- Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are constantly recognized as harmful to Earth's living things and cause reproductive, hormonal disorders, increasing the likelihood of various diseases.
A study by Orb Media says that microplastics are also contaminating tap water around the world. They analyzed 159 types of tap water in 14 countries, some developed and some developing countries. Of these samples, 81% had particles, ranging from 0-61 particles per liter. The result concluded that the average was 5.45 particles per liter with the U.S. having the highest rate and the rate of European countries four times lower than that of the U.S. 98% of all these particles were fibers. When they analyzed 259 different types of plastic water bottles from 19 different locations, 11 of which were renowned water brands, they found microplastic particles in 93% of the samples with an average of 325 plastic particles per liter. Testing shows an average of 10.4 plastic particles per liter, nearly twice as much as tap water.
Compared to the chemicals found in plastics, very little is known about the toxic effects of these particles on the human body. A recent review of the health risks of microplastics says that when they enter the body they lead to inflammation which may cause cancer, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, genotoxicity or even damage to the genetic information that sends cells towards mutation and chronic diseases such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, various attacks etc. Studies show that people are exposed to a variety of microplastics and toxic chemicals through the use of plastic consumer objects such as plastic packaging. While there is still a gap, the data available to date clearly shows an abundance of severe impacts that plastic has on human health and this is only part of the direct contact we have every day with this material.
Our indirect contact starts with the plastic production procedure such as: extraction with the "fracking" technique, refining and cracking, processing and production.
99% of plastic comes from fossil fuels. In addition to harming the earth during fracking extraction, this method releases so many toxic chemicals into the air that communities living nearby and workers in direct contact may inhale or ingest them.
Refining and fracking are so dangerous to people and our climate that we have the example of the largest petrochemical refining company in Houston, Texas that has already severely damaged neighboring communities.
Processing and production is one of the biggest indicators because it releases so many toxic substances into the air that it’s the greatest contributor to climate change.
DAMAGE TO ANIMALS
Every year, plastic pollution kills millions of animals both on land and in the seas and oceans. There are three known ways it affects animals as they are:
- entanglement through plastic nets or ropes,
- indirect or unintentional ingestion where they confuse their food with plastic or feed on animals that have already ingested the plastic and interaction such as collision,
- obstruction or erosion (such as the use of fishing gear colliding with or injuring the coral ecosystem).
For a bird, fish or turtle, it's easy to mistake a small piece of plastic for food - especially when there are millions of pieces of plastic littering the ground, swimming in rivers and ultimately ending up in our oceans. Scientists have found plastic fragments in hundreds of species, including 86% of turtles, 44% of all seabird species and 43% of all marine mammal species. Ingestion of these fragments is often fatal. Animals can starve when they eat too much plastic since they can't digest it and our plastic waste clogs their digestive tracts. As a result, they starve with the feeling that they are full. Not only can the toxic chemicals in plastic harm the health of animals but we also eat them anyway as they make their way toward us through the food chain.
Studies are now showing that oil and gas development pollutes the air, including during processes such as production, processing, transportation and storage. Between 2009 and 2015, 685 studies investigated the impact of the "fracking" method. Of the 46 studies on the topic of air quality, 87% say that "fracking" is a high indicator of air pollution emissions. The production of gas and oil emits about 9 million tons of methane gas and other pollutants such as volatile organic compounds mixed with nitrogen that when exposed to sunlight create ozone and smog pollution at ground level.
Ozone smog has affected rural communities because it is dispersed up to 200 miles from where the pollution begins to spread. Chronic exposure to this ozone smog can lead to abnormal lung function and various pulmonary diseases having the most severe reactions in children, people who have problems with the respiratory tract and the elderly.
When plastic begins to "decompose" in landfills or even in soil and water, it releases very dangerous gasses such as: carbon dioxide and methane. Even burning plastic, as it happens in most landfills, releases pollutants such as heavy metals, dioxins, PCBs and furan. The role of plastic in air pollution in developing and poor countries cannot be overemphasized and the impact on our future generations can be massive.
Most of the plastic waste in the oceans comes from land. This waste gets carried to the sea by large rivers that play the role of a conveyor belt. There are many places in the oceans that are already calling themselves "islands" of our junk that has accumulated over the years.
These "spouts" are called the North Atlantic garbage patch, the South Atlantic garbage patch, the North Pacific garbage patch, the South Pacific garbage patch, and the Indian Ocean garbage patch. The most famous of these is the Great Pacific garbage patch. The island is made up of large plastics (such as electric kettles, plastic bags, plastic bottles, fishing nets, toothbrushes, etc.) and chemical sludge that have become trapped in the North Pacific ocean. This island is a collection of garbage that comes from countries around it therefore getting collected in one place by the waves.
A new term used to explain this is "plastic soups" which are increasing at a staggering rate up to 10x every decade since 1950. Each year we dump between 4 to 12.7 million tons of plastic pieces in our oceans. Toxic chemicals such as PCBs do not dissolve in water but get absorbed by the plastic. Plankton eating fish ingest these toxic plastics and then these fish get eaten by larger predators thus circulating in the food chain of marine life. As a result, fishermen catch these fish that have absorbed the chemicals into their tissues and we eat them full of toxins.
More than 260 aquatic species such as vertebrates, turtles, seabirds, fish and mammals either ingest or become entangled in the plastic debris resulting in immobility, contaminated food, ulcers and eventually death. Especially the "fracking" method used to extract natural resources, enters the water resources through spills that come from improper treatment of wastewater and bad infrastructure resulting in extremely dangerous impacts on our collective health (animals, people, the planet).
While all the attention remains on the pollution of the oceans and the impact of plastics on marine life, those found in our soil are often not taken into consideration. According to a recent report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the earth's soil may be more saturated with plastic pollution than the oceans and about 80% of the plastic found in marine environments is first dumped on land. This report announces the first call to protect agricultural lands from plastic pollution based on the "6R" principle for sustainable use of plastics which includes rejection, redesign, reduction, reuse, recycling and recovery of plastics.
The plastic that finds its way into our soil is usually a single-use plastic. Although there is very little data on soil plastic pollution, we know that 80% of the litter that ends up in the oceans in these garbage patches originally comes from the land. The few studies that have been done say that plastic serves as a vector of chemicals and pathogens harmful to human health. They disrupt soil biology and crop establishment, which negatively affects food security.
The term "Plasticulture" describes the use of plastic products in all aspects of agriculture, from growing seeds to preventing weed pressure in food storage. It is recognized as a method for increasing cultural production and developing food security. The use of plastic films for covering for example has increased the efficiency of water use. Fertilizers wrapped in polymer have increased yields and their protection with plastic cover has increased the life of harvested products and extended growing seasons especially in severe weather conditions. Currently, in the use of plastic in agriculture, the focus is mostly on the benefits it gives and less on the harm it causes. An experiment led by Mary Beth Kirkham, a plant physiologist and professor of agronomy at Kansas State University, has found that wheat grown in soil contaminated with microplastics absorbs more cadmium (a chemical element found in nature and known as cause of various diseases) than plants that have been grown in soil where cadmium occurs naturally. The experiment's findings mean that plastic in our soil is poisoning the food we eat. While plastic culture is known to boost short-term production, very little data exists on the long-term agricultural impact on soil health and ultimately its impact on our food chain.