Updated: Aug 3, 2021
Would you ever eat a credit card? The answer is obvious!
None of us would do it. Yet, every week, with a regular diet, we take on about five grams of plastic, equal to the weight of a credit card. It is the result of a study commissioned by the WWF at the University of Newcastle, Australia.
The researchers analyzed data from 52 microplastic studies, and the results are sobering.
In recent years there has been more and more talk of microplastics and the damage they create to the environment.
Microplastic consists of particles smaller than 5 mm, which have different origins. Some plastic particles and manufactured in a tiny size: think of the exfoliating microspheres contained in some detergents or toothpaste. These are particularly harmful because they are impossible to recycle and have therefore been banned in some countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom. Other types of microplastics, on the other hand, are the product of the degradation of packaging and synthetic fabrics. The oceans are now full of them: a study has estimated that every year over 8 million tons of plastic are discharged into terrestrial waters. One might therefore think that the risk of ingesting particles is mostly related to the consumption of fish, molluscs and crustaceans, but this is not always true.
Australian researchers have also found microplastics in water (with few differences between that of the tap at home and that in bottles) and in table salt. It is precisely water that contains the most plastic: Researchers have estimated that, potentially, a single person can take about 1769 particles of plastic in a week by drinking water alone. Crustaceans and molluscs are indicated as the main source of pollution of our food chain together with fish.
Plastic fibres have also been found in 83% of tap water samples worldwide, with the highest contamination rate in the United States (94%). In European countries, there is a figure of around 72%.
As for salt, a study published in Environmental Science & Technology examined the amount of plastic present in this element, essential in our cuisine, extracted in twenty-one different countries on all continents - except Oceania. The samples from Asia proved to be the richest in microplastics. Not surprisingly, eight of the most plastic-polluted rivers in the world are on this continent. Of all the samples examined, only three, from Taiwan, China and France, did not contain traces of plastic. According to the researchers, an average adult consumes 2,000 microplastic fragments every year by ingesting table salt.
The problem, according to some researchers, is another: we often focus only on microplastics, but it is not enough. We must consider that most of the food we buy is heavily wrapped in plastic, which is also responsible for our daily ingest of harmful substances.
Let’s think of espresso capsules, for example: in addition to the great impact on the environment linked to the fact that they are disposable (so much so that in Hamburg they have already been banned for a few years), they may not be completely safe for our health. A French study has shown that coffee capsules contain higher quantities of potentially harmful chemicals, such as cobalt, chromium, acrylamide.
In any case, the WWF and Australian researchers hope their research will have a strong impact on public opinion. “These results must serve as a warning to governments. Not only is plastic polluting our oceans by killing marine life, but it’s also inside us, and we can’t help but consume it. Global action is urgent and essential to address the crisis,” said Marco Lambertini, general manager of WWF International. “While research is investigating the potential negative effects of plastics on human health, it is clear that we have a global problem that can only be solved by addressing the problem of plastic pollution at its root.” The point, explains Lambertini, is that if we don’t want this harmful substance inside our body, we need to prevent millions of tons of it from spilling into the environment. This is only possible thanks to the commitment of everyone, governments, businesses, people.
We now know the effects of plastic on marine fauna: it obstructs the digestive tract of many animals, decreases appetite, alters food behaviour, with impacts also on the growth and reproduction of individuals.
Some species, including birds, turtles, and cetaceans, die with stomachs full of plastic. So far, however, studies on the damage of plastic on the human organism are few and fragmentary. Among the first to have been addressed by the research is chemical damage: the plastic used in food packaging contains various substances that end up on food.
One of these is bisphenol A, already found in the UK in the urine of 86% of adolescents between 17 and 19 years. It mainly derives from the daily intake of beverages in plastic bottles, but also of fruit and vegetables packed in foil. It is considered by Echa, the European agency for chemicals, an endocrine disruptor, that is a substance capable of altering the hormonal balance, with consequences on the reproductive system and the nervous system.
Then there are phthalates, which are also used in many packaging. Since they bind to fats chemically, they are easy to find in meat, cheese, milk, butter. Therefore, we not only eat them, but often we also spread them on the skin since they are also contained in many cosmetics. Even phthalates are endocrine disruptors and have a direct impact on the reproductive system. The big problem is that many of these compounds have a build-up effect, which can therefore have long-term toxicity. The real consequences, therefore, are still being studied.
A pilot study from the Medical University of Vienna examined a small sample of eight non-vegetarian volunteers from different countries (Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and Austria), who were asked to keep a food diary for a week and then undergo a stool analysis. The researchers analyzed the samples with a spectrometer, finding traces of plastic in all, averaging 20 particles per 10 grams of faeces. The particles measured between 50 and 500 micrometres and were of nine different types, including polypropylene and polyethene terephthalate (PET), components of caps and plastic bottles. Philipp Schwabl, gastroenterologist and author of the article, remains cautious about both the health consequences and the provenance of the plastic.” Most of the volunteers drank water from plastic bottles,” he said told the New York Times, “but many also ate fish and shellfish. And it is also likely that the food was contaminated by plastic during preparation or by the packaging that contained it”.
The problem of plastics has already been partially addressed. Many countries are banning disposable packaging or will do so in the next few years. But now the damage is done, and the tons we have poured into our seas will remain there for centuries. In addition to the already known five plastic islands present in the oceans, also in the Mediterranean, there is a sort of plastic “soup” present in alternating phases (depending on the currents). It is located in the Tyrrhenian Sea, between Corsica and Elba, right inside the protected marine area of the cetacean sanctuary. As for the study of the presence of plastic in our body and the potential health consequences, there is still a long way to go. In the meantime, the priority is to eliminate plastic, which has really been abused in recent years, and to replace it with safer and more sustainable alternatives for the environment and health.