‘They are everywhere’: microplastics in oceans, air and human body


In 2021, researchers found microplastics in both maternal and fetal placental tissue, raising “great concern” about the potential impact on fetal development.

But concern is not the same as proven risk.

“If you ask a scientist whether there is a negative effect, he or she says ‘I don’t know,’” says Bart Koelmans, professor of Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality at Wageningen University.

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

One hypothesis is that microplastics may be responsible for certain syndromes that impair human health.

Although scientists have recently established their presence in the body, it is likely that people have been eating, drinking and inhaling plastic for years.

In 2019, a shock report from the environmental organization WWF estimated that people ingest and inhale up to five grams of plastic per week, enough to make a credit card.

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

“For a lifetime, a grain of salt a week is still a lot,” he told AFP.

While human health studies are yet to be developed, toxicity in certain animals raises concern.

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

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

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

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

It has warned that the world is facing a pollution crisis to match biodiversity and climate crises.

While the health implications of plastics are unknown, scientists do know the effects of indoor and outdoor air pollution, with pollution and health experts at the Lancet Commission estimated that 6.7 million people died early in 2019.

About 460 million tons of plastic were used in 2019, twice as much as 20 years earlier. Less than 10 percent was recycled.

Annual production of plastic from fossil fuels will reach 1.2 billion tons by 2060, with waste exceeding a billion tons, 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’re still inhaling them,” Koelmans says.

“They’re everywhere.”