WHO Says Not to Panic Yet, But Can Microplastics be Dismissed?

It’s no big secret that plastic is part of pretty much every aspect of our lives. Don’t believe me? Try going plastic free for a week. Too long? How about one day? No, scratch that - make it one hour. See if you can cut plastic out of your life completely for one hour as you go about your daily business. Even if you don’t use a plastic mug or a plastic packet of chips or a plastic soap dispenser, you will still be breathing the air. Yes, microplastic is present even in indoor air (more on that later).

Now it’s not right to expect an extreme level of denouncement of plastic on just your first day in the pursuit of a healthier planet and environment. Maybe you still don’t have to ditch air travel (a la Greta Thunberg who is sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to attend climate conferences in New York), that could come later.

However, perhaps you don’t need that plastic straw or stirrer or mug lid just as much as you think you do. I can assure you all your lattes and iced teas would taste exactly the same without them. In fact, they might just taste better if they are accompanied by the awareness of the happiness of little sea turtles, sea lions, seals, among others (here’s a report about what plastic is truly doing to marine animals).

In case you were still wondering, “hey, we already have enough animals, why should I care about a bunch of turtles?”, here’s more. Plastic takes an incredibly long (INCREDIBLY LONG) period of time to disintegrate on its own without any external forces. This, in turn, means that almost all the plastic that mankind has created so far still exists. Since it never really, truly disappears, it keeps breaking down into smaller and smaller particles which eventually enter our bodies via the food chain or the air. And as you can imagine, accumulation of tiny plastic pieces is not the best thing you can do to your body.

Enter, Microplastics

Scientists have found microplastics contaminating a groundwater source that accounts for 25 per cent of the global drinking water supply.

Any plastic substance that is less than five milimetres is a microplastic, explains Dr Pramod Kumar Julka, Senior Director, Max Institute of Cancer Care, Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi. They’re everywhere - in our oceans, rivers, cosmetics, sunscreen, toothpaste, food, utensils and so on. They have been documented in all five oceans as well as in the Arctic sea ice, according to this report.

Here’s another report which shows what some of the Indian coastlines look like. In April 2018, Delhi-based Toxic Links concluded in a study that Indian cosmetics and toiletries contain microplastics. The study tested 18 personal care products across 16 leading brands and found out that 50 percent of facewash samples and 67 percent of scrubs contained microplastic. And the worse part is that there is no way to detect or test how much microplastic is present in our body at any point. So, not only are we drowning in an overwhelming amount of microplastics, there’s no way to determine or quantify their exact numbers in a given body.

"“The pieces are so tiny that currently we have no tests available to determine how much microplastic is present in our bodies. The PET (positron emission tomography) scan, the most advanced of them all, cannot detect anything under one centimetre.” " - Dr Pramod Kumar Julka

In 2016, over 60 million metric tons of plastic fibres were produced globally, points out this study. Anything that is being produced at this pace and in such an unsustainable manner cannot mean good, can it now? Emphasising the same, Dr Avi Kumar, Consultant, Pulmonology, Fortis Escorts Heart Institute, New Delhi, says:

"“The overwhelming production and discharge of plastic is polluting our primary sources of nourishment – soil and water. Plastic is seeping into the groundwater system and the soil, contaminating them with its properties. The toxic chemicals are leaching out of the plastic and getting absorbed in the water and the ground, thereby reaching us indirectly.” "

He adds, “As one moves up the food chain, the concentration of toxicity increases, causing the same to be absorbed and bio-accumulated into our tissues and cells. Toxic ingredients can evaporate into the air and be breathed in. They can readily be absorbed into the skin as well.”

He further adds, “The fact that the research has found that people are consuming up to 102,000 tiny pieces of plastic - 250 grams each year (with nearly 90 percent coming from water, both bottled and tap) is extremely worrisome.”

These numbers were first mentioned by World Wildlife Fund this year when they concluded that the average amount of microplastics that an individual consumes is equivalent to eating a credit card in a week.

Also Read: Microplastics in Your Water? No Reason to Worry, YET

What Can Microplastics do to Your Body?

Both doctors assert that they can prove to be carcinogenic.

"“Cheap and durable plastics are held together by a number of chemicals which are potential carcinogens. They have the potential to disturb and upset the endocrine system, our metabolic functioning, kidneys and cause extensive damage and diseases such as diabetes and cancer. Research and studies are underway to indicate the same.”" - Dr Kumar

Some other problems that Dr Kumar mentions with regard to plastic entering the cells include osteoporosis, thyroid cancer, hypo and hypertension, Addison’s disease, Cushing’s syndrome, low testosterone and obesity. Dr Julka too warns against inflammation of different kinds in the body that can be caused by them. He further says:

"“Inhaling them can cause pulmonary diseases like COPD. It can also cause fibrosis in the lungs. When it comes to digestion, depending on where they are concentrated in the body, they can lead to problems like indigestion, diarrhea.”" - Dr Pramod Kumar Julka

As a word of caution, he reiterates that it’s absolutely imperative to wash vegetables, fruits and meat very well. The plastic particles are so small that they adhere to them. He also suggests avoiding plastic containers as much as possible.

Why the Latest WHO Report is No Reason to Rejoice

While the World Health Organization may have declared microplastics in drinking water not a cause of alarm just yet, there’s more to it. The primary reason for the conclusion is the lack of research, it said in a report published on 22 August. While particles which are smaller than 150 micrometres won’t be absorbed by the human body, the topic still requires more research, said Dr Dr Maria Neira, Director, Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health, at WHO.

Secondly, in a world where clean drinking water is a rare commodity for large parts of the population, microplastics come low on the priority of water contaminants that pose a bigger health risk.

Hence the report emphasised that microplastics should not take the attention away from these impurities in water which put up a tougher battle, while affirming to conduct intensive research into plastic pollution and the effect of microplastics on the human body.

Also Read: 90% Bottled Water Contaminated Globally: What Are Microplastics?

(Rosheena Zehra is a published author and media professional. You can find out more about her work here.)

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