Microplastics can’t be seen, can’t be smelled, can’t be heard – and can’t be stopped.
As a result of our 50-year addiction to plastics, microplastics are now ubiquitous in the environment. These tiny fragments, formed as plastic breaks apart into ever-smaller pieces, are found in soil, water and air. They rain down on us 24/7 and have entered the food chain and water supply. There is little or no prospect of cleaning them up, and the load will inevitably get worse as the approximately 8 billion tonnes of plastic we have manufactured over the past century or so breaks up but doesn’t biodegrade.
Concern about microplastics has so far largely focused on wildlife and the environment, and there is evidence of harms to both. But now attention is turning to us. What, if anything, do these particles do to the human body?
At this point, there are more questions than answers. To put our ignorance into perspective, we don’t even know for sure that the very smallest fragments, called nanoplastics, actually exist – even though they are hypothesised to be the most harmful to our health.
The good news is that researchers are waking up to the potential threat and scrambling to find some answers. The bad news is that it will take years to properly evaluate the problem. As yet, funding is paltry: just a few million euros.
It may turn out to be a false alarm. If microplastics posed a specific threat to human health, perhaps we would have seen it by now. If that feels like clutching at (plastic) straws, that is because it is. Even if we get lucky this time, the natural world will be paying the price of our so-called ingenuity for decades to come. ( New Scientist 21 Dec 2019)
Plastic manufacturers, who profited in the first place, should be encouraged (fined?) to pay for research into micro-plastics and the ever-increasing amounts of waste being created every day. Of course, we are talking about the oil industry, with the powerful ( well- oiled) lobbying machine that protects it. How are we to call industry to account for what they they doing, free of financial risk, to our environment?