• Pre-Collegiate Global Health Review

Microplastic: A Potentially Silent But Deadly Killer

Vedant Sharma, Awty International School, Houston, Texas, USA



Summary

Water is crucial to our survival. An average human consumes about 87,600 liters in a lifetime. However, microplastic is starting to become a serious threat to our drinking water. 90% of plastic does not get recycled, and gets returned to us in the form of microplastics, as plastic decomposes into smaller and smaller pieces and becomes an intrinsic part of the environment (Udall, 2020). It gets converted into a poison that we ingest and causes severe health issues across the food chain. It is imperative that we act now by reducing our plastic consumption and spreading awareness about the danger microplastics pose to our health and planet.


Water is an integral part of life as we know it. It is 60% of your body and 71% of the earth (Massey, 2016). Unfortunately, our long-term use of plastics has created an unsafe amount of microplastics that contaminates drinking water. Some estimates suggest that humans have created about 8 billion tons of plastic, and less than 10% of it has been recycled (Schmidt, 2018). The remaining 90% evolves into a far more damaging product, namely microplastic. As suggested by the name, microplastic is any plastic that is less than five millimeters in length (US Department of Commerce, 2016). It comes from a variety of sources, but it primarily comes from larger plastic debris that degrades into smaller and smaller pieces over a long period of time (Kershaw, 2019).


Let us carefully examine three things: the extent of the problem, the impact of microplastics on our health, and what we can do to correct the mistake of the last 70 years.

The extent of this problem leads to one conclusion: we need to act now. According to the Surfrider Foundation, “A recent study by OrbMedia analyzed 159 water samples, sourced from both tap water and bottled water in 14 countries, and found that over 80% of all samples contained tiny plastic particles, with an average of 4.34 plastic particles per liter of water. Even more surprising, 94% of water samples from the United States contained microplastics, which topped the list compared to all the other regions worldwide.” It has been confirmed that even bottled water is contaminated, and many water companies such as Dasani, Aquafina, and Evian have microplastics present (Surfrider, 2017).


In the media, we generally see the visuals of marine life entangled in plastic and need to demystify this thought, “Well isn’t eroding plastic better for the environment? After all, sea life can’t get stuck or be poisoned by plastic if it’s too small.” We could not be farther from the truth. Plastic does not biodegrade. It keeps breaking down into smaller pieces all the way to the nano-meter scale, so sea life and any other life (including humans) are ingesting that same plastic in our water in the form of microplastic (US Department of Commerce, 2016).

If we are optimistic, we might hope, “If plastic breaks down to the nanometer, surely it would not have any effect on us since it is so small.” Sadly, no. There have been a multitude of effects that have to do with the chemicals that are in the plastic itself. Jodi Flaws, a professor of comparative biosciences and associate director of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Toxicology Program at the University of Illinois says microplastic can accumulate polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a chemical that is linked to harmful health effects, including various cancers, a weakened immune system, and reproductive problems. Another harmful chemical that microplastic possess is styrene, a chemical that has been linked to nervous system problems, hearing loss, and cancer. It has been proven by scientific studies that microplastics exposure can cause toxicity through oxidative stress, inflammatory lesions and increased uptake or translocation (Reports, 2019). Microplastics also act as vectors for harmful chemicals and microorganisms, which can also cause metabolic disturbances, neurotoxicity and increased cancer risk in humans (Rahman, 2021). Clearly, we can no longer ignore the clear danger of microplastics on human health and need to fix the root cause by taking action now.

This problem can be reduced by following 3 simple steps. First, we need to spread awareness; the more people that understand this issue, the faster we can create a solution. The second step, we can all take is drink water directly from tap and eliminate plastic water bottles. According to Sherri Mason, sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend, bottled water contains twice as much microplastic compared to tap water (Ellison, 2021). Lastly, we can reduce microplastics for future generations by committing to use less plastic overall by reusing instead of throwing away.


References


Ellison, G. (2021, September 14). We're eating and drinking Great Lakes Plastic. how alarmed should we be? mlive. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://www.mlive.com/public-interest/2021/09/were-eating-and-drinking-great-lakes-plastic-how-alarmed-should-we-be.html.


Kershaw, P. (2019, November 15). Towards a better understanding of plastics and microplastics in the ocean and sea-based sources of marine litter. UNEP Document Repository Home. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://wedocs.unep.org/handle/20.500.11822/31821.


Massey, H. (2021). Article. Energy4Life. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://practitioners.neshealth.com/article/?id=204.

Rahman, A., Sarkar, A., Yadav, O. P., Achari, G., & Slobodnik, J. (2020, December 3). Potential human health risks due to environmental exposure to nano- and microplastics and knowledge gaps: A scoping review. Science of The Total Environment. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0048969720374039?via%3Dihub.

Reports, C. (2019, October 7). You're literally eating microplastics. how you can cut down exposure to them. The Washington Post. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/youre-literally-eating-microplastics-how-you-can-cut-down-exposure-to-them/2019/10/04/22ebdfb6-e17a-11e9-8dc8-498eabc129a0_story.html.

Schmidt, C., Krauth, T., & Wagner, S. (2018). Our planet is drowning in plastic pollution—it's time for change! Beat Plastic Pollution. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://www.unep.org/interactive/beat-plastic-pollution/.


Surfrider, F. (2019). Microplastics found in drinking water. Surfrider Foundation. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://www.surfrider.org/coastal-blog/entry/microplastics-found-in-bottled-and-tap-drinking-water.

Udall, T., & Lowenthal, A. (2020, February 21). Op-ed: More than 90% of U.S. plastic waste is never recycled. here's how we can change that. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-02-21/plastic-waste-never-recycled-u-s#:~:text=Over%2090%25%20of%20U.S.%20plastic%20waste%20is%20never,that%20we%20ship%20to%20developing%20countries%20to%20handle.

US Department of Commerce, N. O. and A. A. (2016, April 13). What are microplastics? NOAA's National Ocean Service. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/microplastics.html.


Article Thumbnail: "Marine litter. A shoreline microplastics factory." by Snemann is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

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