ubiquitous. Armed with the physical and chemical
properties that modern, industrial societies need, plastics are basically
taking over our planet.
1960s, plastics have gradually become the materials of choice for industrial applications
that once demanded the use of glass, metal, or wood. Salad dressing bottles, car bumpers, and even
toothpicks are now made of plastic. Left
to their own demise, these chemically, synthesized materials never totally go
away but breakdown into smaller and smaller polluting bits called microplastics.
In the USA, plastic bits ranging from 0.1
- 5,000 µm (micrometers) are considered microplastics. To put this in perspective, an unaided human
eye can see an object about as small as 100
µm. Microplastics can get so tiny even a plankton
can ingest one! Yes, that little
creature at the bottom of our food chain eats plastic. According to one scientific study,
microplastics affect the function and health of plankton. (M.Cole,
2013). So, what does that mean for us?
stated, if plastic is ingested by plankton, it is ingested by fish, and potentially
ingested by us too. While most research
shows that microplastics end up in fish guts and most of us do not eat the
guts, further investigation is required to determine if plastics end up in the
most often eaten parts of fish. With
this aside, microplastics do end up in the edible parts of water filtering mollusks
like mussels, clams and oysters. Microplastics have even been found in honey. So, what are the sources of these
uncovered several potential sources of microplastics in our environment. (Orb
Media 2017). Littered plastic items such
as plastic shopping bags and soda bottles (polyethylene terephthalate) can enter
waterways directly and eventually breakdown from weathering into smaller and
smaller bits. Tire dust (styrene butadiene)
enters waterways from road run off. It
is estimated that there are 0.705 ounces of dust for every 62 miles a car or
truck travels. According to the USA
Federal Highway Administration, “Drivers in cars, trucks, minivans, and SUVs
put on record 3.22 trillion miles on national roads in 2016”. This
alone potentially added 1. 145 million tons of styrene butadiene to our waterways.
Paints are another source of
microplastics (house paint, ship paint, and road paint). Eight Trillion plastic microbeads used by the personal
care, cosmetic, and OTC pharmaceutical industries in soaps, toothpastes, body
washes, and creams are estimated to enter USA waterways daily! (R. Trager, 2016). On December 28, 2015, President Barak Obama
signed the “Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015”.
Beginning this past July (2017), this act banned the manufacture of personal
care and cosmetic items containing plastic microbeads and beginning next July (2018)
will also ban the sale of such items. By July 2019, the sale of OTC drugs containing
plastic microbeads will be banned as well. While the USA has taken a big step to ban
these polluters, what about the rest of the world? Only time will tell. Other big microplastic culprits are shedding,
synthetic clothing and carpet fibers. Synthetic
fibers (polyester, acrylic, etc.) can escape our washing machines and enter the
waterways indirectly via sewage and water treatment facilities where as already
small bits they pass through industrial filtering processes. Shedding, synthetic fibers from clothing and carpeting can also
become airborne! It is the airborne
sources of microplastics that researchers believe contaminate honey. As a sticky substance, honey is a perfect place
for a microplastic to land. It seems we
live, eat, and breathe microplastics!
microplastics do more than just inhabit our world, they can harbor metals and bacteria
too. This makes their potential effect
on human health even more serious. More
research on the effect of microplastics on our health is needed.
A recent study published by Orb Media (2017) states
microplastic fibers were found in 94% of 36 samples of drinking water tested in
major USA cities during first quarter this year! While microplastics in our drinking water is
horrible, review of the test methodology used in this study leaves room for some
skepticism. Basically, the fibers identified
as plastic were assumed to be plastic if they did not stain red when exposed to
an organic stain test (reasonable methodology) and subsequently those fibers
that were determined not to be organic in nature, i.e. hair, cotton, wool etc.,
were then put to a mechanical test (poor methodology). If the fibers did not break apart when
agitated with a stainless-steel microspatula, they were assumed to be plastic. There is a lot of room for ambiguity
here. Firstly, was every fiber “agitated”
in the same manner and with the same amount of force? Secondly,
the mechanical agitation did not account for chemical and metal fiber sources,
i.e. glass insulation fibers and fine steel wool. These types of fibers could have been
determined to be plastic. To take away
any ambiguity, the fibers should have been examined by spectroscopic analysis
(G. Liebezeit, 2014). In a nutshell, some of the fibers determined
to be plastic may have been fibers from other non-organic sources. Additionally, Orb Media Tweeted about testing
the tap water in their own office…
nugget. The highest number of fibers recorded in our study was almost too close
for comfort: A sample from the kitchen sink at Orb Media, in Washington, DC,
revealed 34 microscopic plastic fibers. This result was all the more surprising
because Orb’s offices are served by a whole-house water filter at the water
main, and a reverse-osmosis filter at the tap. This implies that, in the case
of this sample, the filters installed at our office may be emitting plastic
study does contain some ambiguities, it also contains some truths. Microplastics are infiltrating our environment. Further research is needed to identify microplastics
sources, quantify amounts by type of plastic, and best determine how these
small particles and fibers are disrupting our biosphere and affecting our health.
And, don’t forget that by properly recycling
our plastics and clothing we each can help to alleviate the problem.
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Ingestion by Zooplankton,
M. Cole, etal., Environmental Science and Technology, 2013, 47 (12) pp.
Synthetic Polymer Contamination in Global
M.Kosuth, etal., Orb Media, May 16,
US bans microbeads from personal care products,
R. Trager, Chemistry World, Jan 6, 2016.