On May 6, 2021 Nature News published a feature article in which author XiaoZhi Lim interviewed leading scientists in the field to learn about the current scientific understanding of the effects of microplastics on health and the emerging field of nanoplastics research. Microplastics are ubiquitous, and one study suggested people may be ingesting up to a credit card’s worth of microplastics each year. Studies on humans directly are only just beginning, but initial studies on human cells, tissues, and mice models found exposure to microplastics may in fact be toxic (FPF reported). Dunzhu Lee, an environmental engineer from Trinity College Dublin, stated “I think it is fair to say the potential risk might be high.”
Lim reported that microplastic would most likely cause any adverse effects through chemical toxicity, “but whether ingesting microplastics significantly raises our exposure depends on how quickly [chemicals] move out of the plastic specks and how fast the specks travel through our bodies.” Even more worrying to the scientists may be the smaller nanoplastic particles, which are small enough to interact at a cellular level (FPF reported). Lim interviewed researchers responsible for some of the first studies investigating nanoplastics’ effects on human tissues. According to the researchers, the tissues showed no obvious signs of cellular toxicity from nanoplastics. However, the field is still learning how best to detect nanoplastics and collecting data outside the lab will take a considerable amount of time.
By 2040 the amount of plastic being thrown away each year may double “from 188 million tons in 2016 to 380 million tons in 2040” according to current work by the Pew Charitable Trust (FPF reported). Ten million tons of this annual waste could be in the form of microplastics on top of the “particles continually being eroded from existing waste.” The Trust’s model found the best single action to cut down on microplastic pollution “would come from cutting out plastics that are used only once and discarded.”
Lim, X. (May 6, 2021). “Microplastics are everywhere – but are they harmful?” Nature News
Nor, NHM. et al. (March 16, 2021). “Lifetime Accumulation of Microplastic in Children and Adults.” Environmental Science and Technology
Lau, WWY. et al. (September 18, 2020). “Evaluating scenarios toward zero plastic pollution.” Science