Are you eating, drinking and breathing plastics?
A report by the Australian University of Newcastle for WWF says that you put about 5 grams of plastic in your body every week, which is the same as swallowing a credit card or a bottle cap.
Whether you eat five meals a day or do intermittent fasting, eat carbohydrates or follow a ketogenic diet, microplastics are everywhere.
In one week we can swallow 1,769 grams of plastic with water, 10 grams with beer and 11 grams with salt. We would not get rid of plastic even if we were drinking from a spring. Plastic falls from the sky with the rain and is present in the air we breathe.
The Origin of Plastics
One of its origins is obviously the plastic that lives in the sea (polyethene, polypropylene and nylon). Although there is a part that comes from fishing (millions of networks lie on the seabed), 80% is generated by activities on land.
Degradation under sunlight and constant erosion by the waves reduce plastics first to what is known as mermaid tears, balls that are usually a semitransparent milky white, just 5 millimetres or less in diameter; then to microplastics as fragments smaller than 5 mm that reach dimensions less than 1 micrometre. Later, they become nano plastics, which are undetectable to the human eye, so small that the purification systems are not able to retain them.
These fragments end courtesy of the cycle of water, wind and the food chain, in the rain, in the Arctic ice, on our plate and in every glass of water, from taps and bottles.
Taking a look with an infrared microscope we would see that in a litre of water there are an average 10.4 plastic particles between 0.1 millimetres and 100 microns. The figure shoots at 314.6 particles in the case of a smaller size.
According to the researchers who did the experiment, the data suggests that part would come from the container’s cap or the packaging process, although there are no conclusive studies.
We all drink them, and we also eat them. Not so much with fish, which is usually eviscerated before cooking. But something with seafood. A 2016 study by the European Food Safety Authority recognizes the presence of nano plastics in the intestinal wall and other mollusc organs, although the European Union estimates that “only a tiny fraction can penetrate deeply into organs and that our exposure to toxins through this contact is low.
Sooner or later, they end up on the menu because, although companies in the sector strictly comply with all food safety regulations, neither the European Union nor US laws take microplastics into consideration in their regulations.
Plastic in our bodies
Then what? Could we suffer plastic poisoning? Should you panic by comparing its toxicity with that of, for example, a heavy metal? If their size exceeds 150 microns, they will go straight to the stool.
With less than 110 microns, they can sneak into the bloodstream. And those under 20, manage to penetrate the kidneys or liver. Despite this evidence, there are no conclusive scientific studies of its effects on human health. Although many want to see clues in its devastating effects on marine fauna.
When they enter the digestive tract of plankton microorganisms, for example, they can hinder their vital functions, even cause their death.
Chilean scientists attest to the intestinal lesions that occur in the Girella laevifrons, a native marine fish that lives among the rocks: from inflammation to abrasions. The next thing will be to see what happens to larger animals.
“We hope to publish another work on sea lions in Chile and Peru soon,” says Professor Diego Pérez-Venegas, a marine biologist at Andrés Bello University in Chile, who specializes in research on the effects of macro and microplastics on oceanic life
Bags and bottles are not the problem
Taking your raffia bag to the supermarket and throwing the containers in the yellow trash can does not prevent them from reaching the oceans. It only frees you, in part, from guilt.
We all produce plastic waste every time we put synthetic clothes in the washing machine.
It is estimated that each year one million tons of acrylic and polyester nanofibers are torn apart during the cycles and end up in the wastewater. Half of them evade treatment systems and end up dumping into aquifers and seas.
Not washing it is not a much better option: friction itself during use causes some of these synthetic fibres to end up in the air. A 2016 study estimated that every year between 3 and 10 tons of synthetic fibres arrive in Paris carried by the wind.
Running away from sport doesn’t make the situation much better: plastic paints, whether for painting the living room or for road markings, also pollute.
It is estimated that 10% of microplastics in the oceans come from that source. Every 100 kilometres, a car produces more than 20 grams of styrene-butadiene powder that comes from its tires.
A few solutions
The big problem with plastic is that it takes between 150 and 1,000 years to decompose. While researching to improve washing machine filters, there are methods such as Cora Ball, capable of capturing up to 26% of the microfibers in the wash.
Recycling, which we assume is where the filtering takes place, is only a patch to the problem. Alternative materials that fall apart over time must be found.
There are interesting experiments with spider silk proteins and ‘air carbon’, a biomaterial produced from CO2 taken from the air, microorganisms and sea salt.
Microbiology also puts its grain of sand. There is already laboratory work with worms and bacteria such as Ideonella sakaiensis, capable of accelerating the degradation of plastic.
Undoubtedly, the Age of Plastic is a challenge for the whole society. And the solution involves us all to achieve, as Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus wishes, “a circular economy with a zero percentage of plastic pollution.”