We created it, now we are drowning in it…

1 April 2019 | In The News

In 1955 Life magazine celebrated the disimprisonment of the American housewife from the daily grind; under the headline ‘Throwaway Living’, a photograph picturing an American family celebrating the dawn of convenience. I wonder, would they have celebrated if they knew the true impact of throwaway living?

Without water, life as we know it ceases to exist, in fact no life would. About 71% of the Earth’s surface is water, with the oceans holding about 96.5% of all Earth’s water. Yet, we seem to be using our oceans as global garbage cans. Every minute, one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into our oceans1 , about 8 million metric tons (equivalent to 1 billion elephants) of plastic is thrown into our oceans each year2, causing devastating effects on sea life, wildlife and us. In the most polluted places in the ocean the mass of plastic is more than 6x the mass of plankton! By 2050 the weight of the ocean plastics will exceed the combined weight of all the fish in the sea…

It’s understandable that some people see ocean plastic as a catastrophe waiting to happen, in the same band as climate change. At a global summit in Nairobi in December 2017, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme spoke of an ‘ocean Armageddon.’ Yet, there is a key difference: Ocean plastic is not as complicated as climate change. To do something about it, we don’t have to redesign our planet’s entire energy system. We know how to pick up garbage, how to dispose of it and how to recycle it. It’s a simple case of building the necessary systems, ideally before the ocean turns into a thin soup of plastic.

Micro plastics; the plastic pieces smaller than one-fifth of an inch across, have been found everywhere in the ocean, from sediments on the deepest seafloor to ice floating in the Arctic. Whilst in the ocean plastics can become coated in marine microbes, making them tempting to eat, micro plastics also produce a scent that enco urages consumption. Thousands of sea life from zooplankton to whales have ingested or been caught in plastic, leading to horrific and slow deaths. Sea turtles can mistake floating plastic garbage for food. They can choke, sustain internal injury and die; or starve by thinking they’re full from eating plastic.

This is all very sad, but why should we care? Once broken down micro plastics become nanoparticles, Karin Mattsson and her colleagues found that plastic nanoparticles reduced the survival of zooplankton and penetrated the blood-brain barrier of the fish that consume them. The conclusion they came to is deeply concerning, plastic nanoparticles can move through the food chain, enter and damage the neural tissue of consumers3.

Studying the impacts of marine plastics on human health is challenging because plastics act differently depending on the physical and chemical contexts, the plastics characteristics may change as it is passed along the food chain. We know very little about how food processing or cooking affects the toxicity of plastics in sea life or even what level of contamination may hurt us. Plastic cannot be defined as one thing; it comes in many forms and can contain a wide variety of added chemicals. Some of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors and can cause cancer or birth defects. Scientists remain concerned about the human health impacts of marine plastics, by the time we find the answers, will it be too late?

Smoking was once considered good for our health, even recommended by doctors; it took years for the link between smoking and lung cancer to be established. If we had acted sooner and placed more research into the effect cigarettes were having on our bodies, we could have potentially saved tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives. Our obsession with plastic and throw away living has already become a cancer for our planet. Should we be putting more research into the effects plastic pollution has on human health? Will we start to see increasing claims in the next 10-20 years which are a result of the worlds increasing plastic pollution? How do we ensure it is not too late?

 

1 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/10/every-minute-one-garbage-truck-of-plastic-is-dumped-into-our-oceans/
2 http://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768
3 https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)32461-9/fulltext
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Megan Ferguson
Megan Ferguson
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