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Microplastics in the oceans, air and human body

Millions of tons of plastic end up in the environment and break down into smaller pieces.


From the depths of the ocean to the tops of mountains, humans have littered the planet with tiny shards of plastic. We have even absorbed these microplastics into our bodies, with uncertain implications.

Images of plastic pollution have become familiar: a turtle suffocated by a shopping bag, water bottles washed up on beaches, or the monstrous “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” of floating trash.

Millions of tons of plastic produced each year, largely from fossil fuels, end up in the environment and break down into smaller and smaller pieces.

“We did not imagine 10 years ago that there could be so many small microplastics, invisible to the naked eye, and that they were everywhere around us,” said Jean-François Ghiglione, researcher at the Laboratory. of microbial oceanography in France.

“And we could not yet consider finding them in the human body”.

Today, scientific studies are detecting more and more microplastics in certain human organs, including “the lungs, the spleen, the kidneys and even the placenta”, Ghiglione told AFP.

It is perhaps not a shock that we breathe these particles present in the air, in particular the microfibers of synthetic clothing.

“We know there are microplastics in the air, we know it’s all around us,” said Laura Sadofsky, from Hull York Medical School in the UK.

His team found polypropylene and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) in lung tissue, identifying fibers from synthetic fabrics.

“The surprise for us was the depth of penetration into the lungs and the size of these particles,” she told AFP.

In March, another study reported the first traces of PET found in the blood.

Given the small sample of volunteers, some scientists say it’s too early to draw conclusions, but there are concerns that if the plastics are in the bloodstream, they could be transported to all organs.

Breathing plastics for years

In 2021, researchers found microplastics in maternal and fetal placental tissue, expressing “great concern” about the possible consequences for fetal development.

But worry is not the same thing as a proven risk.

“If you ask a scientist if there’s a negative effect, he or she will say ‘I don’t know,'” said Bart Koelmans, professor of aquatic ecology and water quality at the University of Wageningen.

“It’s potentially a big deal, but we don’t have the scientific evidence to positively confirm what the effects are, if any.”

One hypothesis is that microplastics could be responsible for certain syndromes that weaken human health.

While scientists have recently identified their presence in the body, it’s likely that humans have been eating, drinking and breathing in plastics for years.

In 2019, a shocking report by environmental charity WWF estimated that people are ingesting and inhaling up to five grams of plastic per week, enough to make a credit card.

Koelmans, who disputes the methodology and results of this study, calculated that the amount is closer to a grain of salt.

“Over a lifetime, a grain of salt a week is still something,” he told AFP.

While human health studies have yet to be developed, toxicity in some animals heightens concerns.

“Small microplastics invisible to the naked eye have deleterious effects on all animals we have studied in the marine environment, or on land,” Ghiglione said.

He added that the range of chemicals in these materials – including dyes, stabilizers, flame retardants – can affect growth, metabolism, blood sugar, blood pressure and even reproduction.

The researcher said there should be a “precautionary” approach, urging consumers to reduce the number of plastic-wrapped products they buy, especially bottles.

Earlier this year, the United Nations began a process to develop a binding international treaty to tackle the global scourge of plastic.

He warned that the world faces a pollution crisis on par with the biodiversity and climate crises.

Although the health implications of plastics are not known, scientists do know the impacts of indoor and outdoor air pollution, which experts from the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health say have caused death premature birth by 6.7 million people in 2019.

Some 460 million tonnes of plastics were used in 2019, twice as much as 20 years earlier. Less than 10% was recycled.

Annual production of fossil fuel-based plastics is expected to reach 1.2 billion tonnes by 2060, with waste exceeding one billion tonnes, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said last month.

“People can’t stop breathing, so even if you change your eating habits, you’ll still inhale them,” Koelmans said.

“They are everywhere.”

(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)


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