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Why tiny plastic particles have become a big health concern

By Chittaranjan Tembhekar & Durgesh Nandan Jha | Jun 09, 2023

As plastic toys, bottles, etc, wear out, tiny plastic particles are released into air, water and soil. As a result, we are eating, drinking and breathing plastic every day. This also exposes us to the hundreds of toxic chemicals that are used in making plastics  

About 70 years ago, at the dawn of the ‘plastic age’, it was forecast that this synthetic material would touch all aspects of modern life. It has, and how! Today, plastics are all around us, including places they were not meant to be in – deep in our lungs, in our bloodstreams, in many foods and even in excreta.

Last year, researchers at Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit detected microplastic pollution in almost 80% of human blood samples. Another study based on lung tissue obtained from surgical cases found microplastics in all lung regions, pointing to the spread of nanoplastic particles in the air.

The full impact of plastic’s invasion of our bodies will be known in the years to come, but the evidence suggests the threat is serious. Last month, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) flagged 10 highly toxic groups of chemicals that can potentially be released from plastics. These include flame retardants, ultraviolet stabilisers, phthalates, bisphenols, etc.

The UNEP report, ‘Chemicals in Plastics’, says the “chemicals of concern” may be released at every stage – from the extraction of raw materials to the production of polymers and manufacture of plastic products. They might also leach out while plastic products are used, and at the end of their life, when waste is not properly managed and finds its way into the air, water and soil.

The report says chemicals of concern have been found in a range of products, including toys, food packaging, electrical and electronic equipment, vehicles, synthetic textiles, furniture, building materials, medical devices, etc. Women and children are particularly susceptible to these toxic chemicals, and the severe or long-lasting adverse effects on women of childbearing age could later impact their progeny.

Another recent report by the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL) suggests the oceans are not the “final sink” for microplastics as these tiny particles can move much faster through the atmosphere. “Moving through the air, micro- and nanoplastics can cover thousands of kilometres in a matter of days to weeks.” That explains the presence of microplastics in “locations and populations at vast distances from the sources of plastic pollution”.

Besides the chemicals that are inside them, microplastics can carry toxins and pathogens on their surface. “Microplastics often have large specific surface areas and are predominantly hydrophobic, meaning they repel water. These characteristics make airborne microplastics a ‘Trojan horse’ capable of hiding and carrying harmful substances into the animals or humans who inhale, absorb and ingest them,” the CIEL report says.

Foetuses and young children are at particular risk because of their extreme sensitivity to hazardous chemicals, an analysis published in the Annals of Global Health (AGH) shows. “Plastic-associated exposures are linked to increased risks of prematurity, stillbirth, low birth weight, birth defects of the reproductive organs, neurodevelopmental impairment, impaired lung growth, and childhood cancer,” it says, adding that “early-life exposures to plastic-associated chemicals also increase the risk of multiple non-communicable diseases later in life”.

Plastic additives, including endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), have been linked to infertility, obesity, diabetes, prostate and breast cancer, thyroid problems and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, among others. That’s why it is important to address chemicals in plastics as part of the global action on plastic pollution.

To put the world on track to end plastic pollution by 2040, expert groups have called for the adoption of a strong and comprehensive Global Plastics Treaty in accord with the mandate set forth in the March 2022 resolution of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA). This includes capping global plastic production and banning or severely restricting the manufacture and use of unnecessary, avoidable, and problematic plastic items, especially single-use items such as manufactured plastic microbeads.

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