Home Health Health Microplastics: what they are and how they affect the environment

Microplastics: what they are and how they affect the environment

Small plastic particles have also been found in human organisms

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are, as the name says, very small particles of plastic; smaller than 5 millimeters – smaller than a grain of rice. But even with such small measures, microplastic is considered one of the main pollutants in the oceans.

According to Luís Fernando Amato, a researcher at USP, microplastics can be classified in two ways:

  • Primer: they are already manufactured in millimeter size (like those used in exfoliating)
  • Secondary: plastics that are incorrectly disposed of in the environment and that suffer the action of the sun, rain, friction, biological activities, etc. As a result, the normal plastic that is in the environment starts to be fragmented into smaller and smaller sizes, as these conditions start to make the material structure weaker and weaker.
  • Photo: Carmen Martínez Torrón

    The type of microplastic that currently negatively affects nature is the secondary. Amato explains that “once it is in the environment, it can absorb other pollutants, acting as a kind of vector for other contaminants, being more harmful than normal plastic”.

    In addition to polluting and contaminating the environment, microplastics are the “perfect place” for bacteria that create a bacterial film on the surface of the plastic particle. These bacteria can be pathogenic and, once ingested or inhaled, can affect the health of several animals, especially marine animals.

    According to the researcher, the presence of systemic inflammatory processes caused by microplastics in these living beings has already been verified. They also affect reproduction and increased mortality for some species.

    Like the marine environment, the terrestrial one suffers the impacts of small plastic particles: “one of the by-products of water treatment is a sludge widely used as fertilizer in agriculture. The material takes the microplastic that was in the oceans to the land and, consequently , for the production of food and for earthworms, essential in agriculture, but that end up dying for ingesting the particles of microplastics “.

    How do microplastics affect human health?

    The secondary microplastic can be ingested or inhaled by humans. Particles are in the air of cities, both indoors and outdoors.

    Amato explains that, in the air, the microplastic is shaped like a fiber, which is closely related to the textile fiber of any clothing that uses polymeric material, considered microplastic. Through the friction of clothing on the body caused by locomotion, fibers of the fabric come loose in the air. So, there is a possibility of breathing these particles.

    The size of the microplastic will determine whether it goes to the deepest regions of the lung or whether it will be in the nose area, in the upper airways. “It has been observed that a large part of these particles are relatively large, so if you inhale it ends up being retained in the nose, but there is the possibility that they will stop in the lung”, explains Amato.

    However, there are still no clear answers about the long-term effects of these particles or the impact on the human body. there is an study which confirmed the presence of microplastic in the human placenta of unborn fetuses. The impact this will cause is still unknown, but scientists think the effects could be long-term.

    Another study was presented in 2018 at a gastroenterology congress held in Vienna (Austria); in it, researchers from the Vienna Medical University and the country’s state environmental agency collected fecal samples from eight volunteers who for a week had to write down everything they ate and under what conditions they bought their food, fresh or packaged.

    Twenty microplastics were identified for every 10 grams of fecal matter. The research was unable to determine the origin of the small particles, nor their effect on the health of the volunteers, but the discovery itself is already shocking.

    How does microplastic go into the environment?

    The microplastic is in the land, seas and air. Check out some ways in which particles are deposited in the environment.

  • Wrong disposal of plastic materials
  • Clothing friction on the body
  • Laundry
  • Cosmetics
  • Latex and acrylic paints
  • How to mitigate its effects?

    “The production of plastic increases every year and we continue to dispose of this material in an incorrect and inefficient way. Evidence of the harmful effects of microplastics on animals and the environment exists, so the tendency is for these effects to increase if actions are not taken”.

    Some actions can help to decrease the amount of microplastics in nature:

      Photo: Dougal Waters Photo: Dougal Waters

  • Decrease plastic consumption, making the switch to more sustainable materials
  • Search for sustainable alternatives
  • Recycle trash
  • Increase investments in research on biodegradable plastics
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