Tiny particles of plastic are in our food, water and even the air we breathe. We investigate the impact they have inside our bodies
4 December 2019
THIS morning I tried to count how many plastic objects are in my house. I got as far as the bottom drawer in my kitchen cabinet – which contained 147 assorted plastic boxes, lids, cups, straws and disposable cutlery – then gave up. I had to get to work.
Good job I didn’t get down on my hands and knees with a microscope to look for really small bits of plastic, because I would never have left. By some estimates, the average household generates 6 kilograms of plastic dust every year, around 700 billion fragments known as microplastics. Like snowflakes, every one is different. Every one may also be harmful.
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They aren’t just indoors. “They are everywhere,” says Dick Vethaak, an environmental toxicologist at the Deltares research institute in Delft, the Netherlands. “In the water, in food, in the air – you are surrounded by a cloud of them. Everything is contaminated.” More are created every day and they will be with us for centuries.
Big plastic debris has been on our radar for years. Yet this is just the start of something more insidious. Plastic waste doesn’t biodegrade but it does break down, fragmented by wind, waves and sunlight into ever-smaller pieces. They may be too small to see, but they are still there, worming their way into every nook and cranny of the environment – including our bodies.
This, in a nutshell, is the pervasive problem of microplastics. But beyond knowing that they exist and are everywhere, we are woefully ignorant about them and their potential impact on us. That is …