• Dr Chris George

Plastic and our health

“Since its introduction into the world 70 years ago we are fast approaching a point where we will see more plastic in our ocean than fish”

There is an increasing amount of evidence that plastic may be harmful for our health. The main problem is that once created plastic never really goes away and can stick around in our oceans for hundreds of years. It breaks down into smaller pieces known as ‘microplastics’ which can be ingested by animal life. In fact, these microplastics can be eaten in our food, drank and even inhaled. Research is showing that microplastics can be harmful to our health and we urgently need to start taking action.

Microplastics and pathogens

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic measuring 5mm or less. There are even small forms known as ‘nanoplastics’ which are a million times smaller than a millimetre. Nowadays, scientists have found microplastics almost everywhere on our planet from the deepest sea beds to the highest mountains.

Plastics are non-biodegradable and, on their surface, bacteria can grow which can cause disease and be harmful to our health. With microplastics in our food, water, and air the question of how this impacts our health is being researched more and more.

Modes of harm

There have been several theories proposed by researchers about how plastics may be harmful to our health.

Firstly, they may cause irritation by simply being present within the body by being small enough to pass into human cells or tissues. This is the same mechanism by which the small thin fibres of asbestos can enter cells within the lungs leading to irritation and cancer.

Inhalation of microplastics from the environment can occur in a similar manner as sooty particles from car exhausts, power plants and forest fires called PM10 and PM2.5. These particulate matters can deposit themselves within the lung causing damage to the respiratory system.

Larger microplastics are thought to exhibit more of a negative effect through chemical toxicity. Producers of plastic commonly add compounds such as plasticisers, stabilisers and pigments to plastics of which many are hazardous. The compounds have shown to have been shown to affect the human endocrine system.

Another theory is that microplastics in the environment attract chemical pollutants which then enters the animal that eats them.

The simplest theory is that marine life ingests multiple bits of plastic which are of no nutritional value meaning that animals literally starve to death. There have been numerous reports of animals such as baby turtles and whales being washed up on the shore containing a shocking number of plastic within their gastrointestinal system.

The shape of the problem

It is thought that the shape of the plastic particles has a significant impact on microorganisms. Fibres are thought to pass more slowly through zooplankton compared with spherical shapes. Research has shown that zooplankton exposed to microplastic produced less off spring and were smaller in size. Fibers that were not ingested impacted the ability of zooplankton to move as seen in the video below.

Red microplastic fibres wrapped around Temora copepod a type of zooplankton. Credit Plymouth Marine Laboratory

Shocking facts about plastics

  • 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away every year in the UK

  • Less than 1 in every 400 coffee cups gets recycled

  • Only 9% of all plastic ever has been recycled

  • 9 billion fewer plastic bags have been used in the UK since the 5p charge

  • In 2050, it has been predicted there will be more bits of plastic in our oceans than fish

Join the movement

  • #plasticfreefriday – Friends of the earth campaign

  • #passonplastic – Sky Ocean Rescue campaign

  • #plasticpatrol – Fighting plastic pollution in the UK waterways

  • Take the plastic pledge with @Greenpeace

  • Call for a plastic deposit scheme – sign up with @Greenpeace

  • Check out surfers against sewage – plastic pollution is the ‘new sewage’ (www.sas.orh.uk) https://www.plastichealthcoalition.org/