The inadequate handling of plastic waste worldwide begins to show its negative impacts
A United Nations Environment Program report, released in April 2018, highlighted the finding made by German researchers in relation to the millions of tons of plastic that revolve around the oceans. According to the research, the effects of land contamination by microplastics are up to 23 times larger compared to oceanic pollution. Much of this material ends up in landfills, where it can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, releasing potentially toxic substances to soil and water.
The study estimates that one third of all plastic waste ends up in soil or fresh water. Most of this plastic disintegrates into particles of less than five millimeters, known as microplastics, and these are further decomposed into nanoparticles (less than 0.1 micrometers in size). The problem is that these microscopic pieces are entering the food chain.
At the end of 2017, from an analysis of samples taken in different countries of the five continents, it was concluded that 83% of all the diagnosed material contained microplastics. The sizes of the plastics vary from the width of a human hair to the size of a red globule, according to the study commissioned by Orb Media Network and carried out by the State University of New York and the University of Minnesota.
Pollution does not distinguish between rich and poor nations. The researchers pointed out that the country with the highest index was the United States with 94%, where samples were taken in emblematic places such as Capitol water, the taps of the Trump Tower in New York and the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington DC. The list is followed by Lebanon with 93.8%, India with 82.4%, Ecuador with 79.2%, and Europe with an average of 72.2%.
Unlike other studies that focus on the presence of microplastics in the ocean and how they can enter the food chain through the fish we consume, this reveals the extent of contamination by plastics in the global environment. The problem does not end there. "We knew that this plastic comes back to us through our food chain. Now we see it coming back to us through our drinking water. Do we have an exit?" the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Grameen Bank founder, Muhammad Yunus, told Orb Media.
In addition to fish, other foods that are exposed to this contamination through water are, for example, bread, soup, soft drinks, tea, coffee, pasta or milk for baby formula. Each year about 300 million tons of plastic are produced, of which only 20% are recycled or incinerated, the rest ends up in the air, land or sea.
In general terms, when the plastic particles decompose, they obtain new physical and chemical properties, which increases the risk that they have a toxic effect on organisms. And the greater the number of species and ecological functions potentially affected, the greater the probability that toxic reactions will occur.
How safe for people's health is it to consume such small plastic particles? It is a difficult question to answer. "We still do not know how many of these particles get into our bloodstream", says Rolf Halden, director of the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University, but if some were small enough to cross the intestinal barrier", the physical invasion of tissues and the impact of the chemical components contained in plastics would be worrying", Halden told DW in March 2018.
Latin American Post | Mariangel Massiah
Translated from "La contaminación no distingue entre países ricos y pobres. Todos estamos comiendo microplásticos"