Help, there are microplastics on my plate!

Help, there are microplastics on my plate!

July 25, 2019

Help, there are microplastics on my plate!

Plastics emergency: not only the “garbage patches” in the oceans, but also the microplastics and nanoplastics present in the food chain.

According to 2017 UN estimates, there are 51,000 billion particles of microplastics in the seas, 500 times more than the number of stars in the Milky Way. And they are everywhere. A study by Newcastle University, United Kingdom, for example, showed that microplastics are present in marine microorganisms living at depths close to 11,000 meters. Research presented in 2018 at the 26th United European Gastroenterology (UEG) Week in Vienna also showed the presence of microplastics in the feces of a group of men from different countries.

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What are microplastics?

Microplastics are particles 0.1 to 5,000 micrometers (µm) in size [1000 µm equal 1 millimeter], according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) definition. On the other hand, nanoplastics are even smaller particles, ranging from 0.001 to 0.1 µm (1 to 100 nanometers). 

Research on micro- and nanoplastics has made considerable progress in recent years, as these substances are becoming increasingly important as part of the new and difficult environmental challenge to be faced, which also has potential consequences for people's health.   


Where do microplastics come from?

Microplastics can move about 100 kilometers from their place of origin, carried by air currents, then to be deposited on the ground and in the water.

A paper published in Nature Geoscience describes the “journey” of microplastics and explains why it is so difficult to understand where they come from. Experts in the European Parliament divide microplastics into primary (directly produced as such) and secondary (derived from the degradation of larger objects such as fishing nets, plastic bags, etc.). The former account for 15-31% of microplastics in the ocean, while the remainder are secondary microplastics. In particular, the washing of synthetic garments is the main source of primary microplastics (35%), followed by tire abrasion while driving (28%), followed by particles deliberately added to body care products such as creams or toothpastes (2%). Due to their minute size, these particles are unlikely to be retained by filters in washing machines or household drains, for example. 


From the environment to the dining table

A few years ago, Richard Kirby, a freelance scientist and film-maker, managed to capture the moment a fragment of microplastics was ingested by a tiny marine organism forming part of plankton. This is how microplastics get into the food chain. It is worth remembering that plankton, consisting of both animal and plant micro-organisms, is the basis of the food chain and provides nourishment to many marine organisms, such as whales. 

Through plankton, microplastics are also ingested by all the organisms that provide food for plankton and therefore, after however many steps, could also reach humans. The ‘could’ here is vital. As EFSA experts remind us, the information currently available on microplastics in marine foods tells us that such fragments are generally present mainly in the stomach and intestines of fish and are therefore not ingested by humans, who discard their entrails. “But in crustaceans and bivalve mollusks like oysters and mussels, you eat the digestive tract so there is some exposure there", says Peter Hollman, a researcher who has followed EFSA experts in drafting the statement on Presence of microplastics and nanoplastics in food, published in 2016

However, microplastics do not only come from the sea. Traces have also been found in honey, beer, table salt and even bottled water, as demonstrated by the results of a recent survey carried out in collaboration with the State University of New York at Fredonia. 


The world is running for cover

Regardless of their origin, microplastics are increasingly found on dining tables around the world, so much so that, according to an analysis by a group of Australian researchers, an average of about 2,000 tiny pieces of plastic are ingested every week, equal to 21 grams per month and just over 250 grams per year. This is the equivalent (in weight) of one credit card per week. The health effects of these tiny fragments are not yet known, but authorities around the world are taking action to try to curb pollution from microplastics and nanoplastics. 

Experts from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) dedicated a report to microplastics to explain their environmental impact. There is no shortage of initiatives at a European level either. In 2015, the European Parliament voted to restrict the use of plastic bags and in September 2018, the European Commission adopted an ad hoc strategy to combat plastic pollution

In 2019, the law banning many disposable plastic products from 2021 was finally passed. In terms of microplastics more specifically, the European Commission has received requests to ban the addition of microplastics to cosmetic products and detergents across the continent by 2020 and to encourage measures to reduce the amount of microplastics from tissues, tires and other consumer goods. Up-to-date information on the European initiatives are available on a dedicated website


 

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