Microplastics are at a crisis point. Over 5.25 trillion plastic particles, weighing 270,000 tons, are currently in the ocean. It is estimated that at least 26% of fish species ingest microplastics. Plastics are chemically stable, which means they don’t pose an immediate biohazard to the surrounding environment, but rather than remaining intact forever or biodegrading, they slowly disintegrate in water.
Microplastics have not just been found in the ocean; they have also been found in the air. As the ocean moves, the air is trapped in tiny bubbles, and when these bubbles break at the ocean’s surface, small microplastic particles move into the air. These particles can also pick up contaminants in the surrounding environment, whether phthalates, flame retardants, or heavy metals. When microplastics settle in the human body, they may also be carrying these contaminants. Researchers have shown that a person eating an “average” diet consumes over 5 grams of microplastics per week.
The Impact of Microplastics
Microplastics have been proven to slow the growth and reproduction of marine life. Polystyrene microplastics specifically have been shown to reduce the reproductive capacity of fish. Dr. Susanne Brander of Oregon State University explains that aside from direct ingestion, microplastics can also be trophically transferred, meaning that microorganisms ingest the plastic particles, and larger organisms ingest these microorganisms.
Even in larger animals, like turtles, microplastics can impact reproduction. The sex of marine turtle eggs is typically skewed towards females if sand is warmer at incubation. Since microplastics in sand raise the overall temperature, many turtle populations now see a rise in female births over male births.
Of the 3,000 chemical additives plastic is treated with, 98 are considered toxic, while 15 are endocrine disrupting. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals have been a leading cause of intellectual disabilities, cancer, and brain damage in humans over the last 20 years.
Microplastics have also been shown to act as toxins in the human body through inflammatory lesions and oxidative stress. It has been shown to affect humans’ metabolism and endocrine systems almost immediately and has a carcinogenic impact in the long term.
Where are microplastics?
Many microplastics are linked to shipping waste, fishing products, and trash. However, these are not the only sources of microplastics. Microfibers produced in carpets and clothing make up a significant majority of the plastic found in the ocean. These microfibers get into our environment through the home laundry process, and the effluent that is processed during wastewater treatment is too small to be caught during treatment and, as a result, remains in the treated water.
Wastewater treatment plants effectively remove a significant amount of larger plastic particles; however, the sludge from wastewater plants is often used as agricultural compost. This use means that crops grown in the United States also gain microplastics.
What We Can Do
You can request that food wares like straws, coffee lids, and to-go containers are added to your local polystyrene foam ordinances. You can also petition your municipality to provide trash cans with covers to avoid the transference of plastic directly into waterways. As an individual, you can commit to using water bottles and Tupperware instead of single-use plastics. You can also eliminate single-use cleaning products like nitrile gloves from your routine.
C & A is committed to reducing industrial waste and minimizing plastic use over time. Positive corporate leadership is crucial to mitigating this crisis. If you are interested in learning more about our commitment to the environment, check out our mission at C & A Scientific.
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