Invisible but everywhere – the growing spread of microplastics

One Change: Tiny particles can be found in food, air and in tap and bottled water

Microplastics can be released into the water system via the washing of fleeces or other clothing containing plastics.

Microplastics can be released into the water system via the washing of fleeces or other clothing containing plastics.

 

Microplastics were back in the headlines recently, with a study revealing that bottle-fed babies can swallow millions of these particles a day. The research team, based at Trinity College Dublin, found that the high temperature process of sterilising bottles can cause the release of millions of microplastics. The findings have been described as a “milestone”.

It was already known that microplastics can be found in almost every part of the planet – from Arctic snow and household dust, to the bellies of whales and even in the human gut. What makes this study different, however, is that it reveals that their presence is far greater than previously thought. The World Health Organisation (WHO) had estimated that people generally consume about 300 to 600 microplastics a day; this new report found it could be much higher than that, and closer to the millions.

So what are microplastics? They represent a diverse range of material types, shapes, colours and sizes, but are generally smaller than 5mm in length. They enter the environment in various ways such as surface run-off or wastewater effluent or, they can be released into the water system, for example, via the washing of fleeces or other clothing containing plastics. Microplastics are either manufactured (in cosmetics, such as microbeads) or derived from fragmentation of larger plastics over time.

Aquatic ecosystems

There are more than 14 million tonnes of microplastics on the ocean floor, according to research published last month by Australia’s national science agency. The risks posed to aquatic ecosystems are vast and have been found (among other things) to disrupt reproductive systems of fish and other marine life, stunt growth and cause liver damage.

For humans, however, the risks associated with ingesting microplastics are not yet known. While these particles are often excreted, it’s not known if they can be absorbed into the bloodstream or other parts of body. In 2019, in concluding a study into the presence of plastic particles in tap and bottled water, the WHO called for more research into the presence of microplastics in the environment and their impact on human health. It also called for far greater management of microplastics in the environment.

What’s unnerving about all of this, of course, is that we can’t always see the plastics we are ingesting. We know they can be found, for example, in most brands of tea bags. Or in the foil of crisp packets or take-away coffee cups. And last month’s Irish study also revealed that food preparation in plastic containers can lead to greater human exposure to microplastics. Official guidance, however, has not yet been issued to concerned parents using polyproplene bottles (which make up 82 per cent of the world market) in light of the study’s findings on babies’ bottles.

There is much more to be understood about the hidden presence of these particles in the environment and their effect on humans, and this latest study has made it clear – again – that we are still using way, way too much plastic. @SorchaHamilton

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.