Plastics already pollute our oceans and sea life. Now, even smaller microplastics are found in the air we breathe, the food we eat. Can we protect ourselves and our children from the harmful effects?
By Aarthi Arun
Look around your house and see how many things made of plastic you use every day. Plastics are ubiquitous and indispensable in our modern life. But, the bad news is that they are also made up of synthetic chemicals that harm our health and the environment.
Do you look for Bisphenol A (BPA)-free water bottles and lunch boxes for your child? Chemicals like phthalates and BPA found in low-grade plastics can cause hormonal imbalances, birth defects and some types of cancer. You may have already switched to BPA and phthalate-free bottles and boxes for your home. But the big question is — are these precautions enough? The latest research gives you an emphatic 'No'. Forget these chemicals, microplastics are creating a much bigger stir. From the water we drink to the vegetables we eat, to the seafood we consume, microplastics have inadvertently become a part of our food chain. There is no denying that we are knee-deep in plastic pollution. So let's learn more about plastics in our food, and plan on some damage control before the situation gets out of hand.
Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic that are less than five millimetres in size. These microplastics get into our environment when larger plastic parts break down into smaller particles in a process called weathering. Also, these particles are intentionally manufactured as microbeads that are then used in cosmetic products as exfoliants. What's more, researchers have found that synthetic clothing produces a substantial amount of microplastics. Due to the small size, microplastics can be ingested by animals as a part of the food they eat and the air they breathe. A growing concern is the finding of these particles in the stomachs of most marine species. Though most of these plastics end up in the gut, some have also been found in the bloodstream, lungs and liver.
A study by the Medical University of Vienna and Environment Agency, Vienna recently shows that there are microplastics in human stool samples. So, how exactly do microplastics end up in our food? The main source is the seafood we consume. The incidence of these chemicals seems to be high in shellfish like mussels and clams that stay in the same location on the seabed rather than fish that constantly move about. Not surprisingly, sea salt is also found to have a considerable amount of microplastics. Another major source seems to be bottled water and other kinds of drinks. In fact, we may be gulping down ten different types of microplastics with each water bottle we guzzle. We also ingest these harmful chemicals from the plastic boxes we use for storing food.
A more worrying aspect is that the dust in our homes is often laden with microplastics. It can then settle down on the food we prepare, and end up in our digestive tracts. Furthermore, the microplastic particles can act as a vector and carry heavy metal particles and other contaminants. So, these plastic particles can create toxicity and play havoc with our immunity. This is especially true with chemicals like BPA and phthalates. Since microplastics are very small, scientists are not yet sure on their other harmful effects. As of now, there is no concrete evidence on how these impact our health.
Instead of waiting for more proof or evidence, you can start taking small steps to avoid them in your immediate environment. Moreover, any kind of plastic is unhealthy for our planet. Here is how you can start making a difference:
With research on microplastics still in nascent stage, there is no need to panic as yet. However, to be on the safer side, it is better to go back to using traditional stainless steel, glass and copper vessels and containers in our homes. And yes, it is high time we cut down on our plastic usage.
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