The Health Effects of Microplastics
Plastics are a common feature of modern
life, with different types of plastics found in everything from the clothes we
wear through to the beauty products we put on our skin. While these moldable
polymers are ubiquitous and can be highly useful, they have also been
associated with a range of problematic health issues. Microplastics are causing
particular concern among healthcare professionals, with these tiny pieces of
plastic either directly added to consumer products or created accidentally when
larger plastics break down.
Microplastics include all the small pieces
of plastic that measure less than 5mm. These tiny particles come from numerous
sources, including synthetic clothes, cosmetic products, household cleaners,
and dust from paints and tyres. Microplastics can be put into two major groups,
with some particles designed to be small from the outset and others created
from the breakdown of larger plastic items. While some forms of plastic don't
break down easily, others turn to dust quickly when they age or become exposed
to certain environmental conditions.
Regardless of where they come from,
microplastics cause numerous problems when they accumulate in places that
haven't been designed to handle them. Whether it's your home, your workplace,
or even your food supply, exposure to microplastics can have a damaging effect
on organic and biological systems. Microplastics have already become a common
feature in the world's water supply, with microscopic fragments of plastic
found in 83 percent of water samples worldwide according to a study published
in 'The Lancet Planetary Health' from late 2017.
Even though plastics have been around for
decades, the negative health effects of these tiny particles is still unclear.
What we do understand is very worrying, however, with many of the basic
chemicals found in commercial plastics known to be toxic to human health. For
example, BPA and phthalates are two common endocrine-disrupting chemicals that
may interfere with natural human hormones. Flame retardants are another big
problem, with these particles possibly interfering with brain development in
foetuses and children.
Plastic microparticles could also become carriers
for other toxins to enter the body, including toxic metals such as mercury, and
pesticides and dioxins that are known to cause cancer. Nanoplastics are also
increasing in the environment, with these extra-tiny particles measuring just 1
to 100 micrometers in length. Nanoplastics could potentially enter human cells,
with ongoing exposure to these robust particles happening at a much faster rate
than we can regulate or control.
While there is still no clear evidence that
these tiny particles cause problems, calls are being made for policy makers
across the world to start regulating the plastics industry before it's too
late. Any future studies into microplastic consumption will be difficult to
apply, however, with observational studies open to confounding and experimental
studies both impractical and unethical. According to the World Health
Organisation (WHO), there are over six million global deaths each year
associated with air pollution, with microplastics recognised by many as the
next frontier where human health and environmental pollution will converge.
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