Children's health at stake from plastic pollution

GEOFFREY LEAN: Plastic pollution is no longer about the environment or litter – our children’s health is at stake

Week by week, and month by month, the perils posed by plastic pollution are becoming ever clearer, and more alarming.

When the Daily Mail began campaigning on the issue years ago, the main concern was that the plastic was increasingly littering our towns, countryside and beaches. Then research showed how much it was contaminating and endangering Earth systems, especially the life of the oceans.

Now evidence is beginning to build up on how plastic is threatening our health, including the well-being of babies and the unborn, after breaking down into microplastic particles.

As the Mail reported yesterday, a new study suggests that we all breathe in up to 7,000 microplastic particles a day — 100 times more than had been previously thought.

Week by week, and month by month, the perils posed by plastic pollution are becoming ever clearer, and more alarming, writes Geoffrey Lean (stock image)

Threats

Other research suggests that babies take in 14 times as much of them as adults, partly as a result of sucking dummies and drinking from plastic bottles.

And there is also growing evidence that microplastics aggravate conditions like allergies and diabetes, lower sperm counts and may even cause cancer. Some experts are even starting to compare them to asbestos.

Whatever their effects, it is clear that we have managed to achieve constant exposure to microplastics without realising either what we were doing or what threats they pose.

It all originates in our ubiquitous use of plastic, which has multiplied 20-times over in the past half century. Every year, we churn out more than 380 million tonnes of it — outweighing the combined mass of all 7.9 billion people alive today. And worse, this is expected to more than double over the next 30 years.

Much, of course, ends up as waste. Every year, 12 million tonnes reaches the oceans where it forms enormous floating garbage patches — one in the Pacific is three times the size of France — and kills mammals, birds and fish. None of it disappears: every ounce ever produced still remains. Instead it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually creating microplastics, which range from the size of a grain of rice down to complete invisibility.

Other microplastics are deliberately manufactured and incorporated in products from paints to medicines, to nappies and pesticides.

Much, of course, ends up as waste. Every year, 12 million tonnes reaches the oceans where it forms enormous floating garbage patches — one in the Pacific is three times the size of France — and kills mammals, birds and fish (stock image)

Still more result from wear and tear, produced as car tyres hit the road or washing machines toss about the two-thirds of clothes made of synthetic materials. By one estimate, 700,000 plastic microfibres can result from a single wash. They are also given off by almost all the 11 billion wet wipes used in Britain each year.

Irrespective of their origin, most microplastics are so tiny that they are picked up from the ground or sea spray by the wind and blown around the globe. They even fall in rain.

They have been found at the North Pole and on tropical island beaches, on the top of Everest and at the bottom of the Mariana Trench — the highest and lowest spots on Earth — and 3.5 km up in the atmosphere, where they may affect the climate.

Research has linked ‘pervasive’ microfibre pollution of the Arctic with clothes-washing in Europe and North America. In all, some 125 trillion minuscule particles are thought to be sloshing around in the world’s oceans, and there are even more on land.

Worse, they are 60 times more prevalent indoors than in the open air. So the University of Portsmouth study reported in yesterday’s Mail — which used special equipment to measure the air in a home in Beckenham, London — found that each member of the family living there was likely to be breathing in between 2,000 and 7,000 microplastic particles every day.

So the University of Portsmouth study reported in yesterday’s Mail — which used special equipment to measure the air in a home in Beckenham, London — found that each member of the family living there was likely to be breathing in between 2,000 and 7,000 microplastic particles every day. Pictured: Michelle Morrison and her daughter, whose home was the subject of the study

That is up to a staggering 2.5 million a year, which is many times more than what had been estimated in previous studies. One, published in the journal Environmental Science And Technology, had put it about a hundred times lower, at 24,000 annually.

The highest levels were found in the bedroom of the eight-year-old daughter of the house, where her carpet, bedding and toys were made of synthetic materials.

This is, of course, just one study. But it is of a piece with others that suggest our exposure to microplastics is much greater — and much more serious — than has ever been thought.

A New York University School of Medicine study, for example, found that babies produced 14 times as many microplastic fibres in their faeces as adults. It concluded this ‘can be attributed to extensive use of plastic products/articles such as baby feeding bottles, sippy cups, utensils such as spoons and bowls, teethers and toys.’

Inflamed

‘Infant formula prepared in bottles can release millions of microplastics, and many processed baby foods are packaged in plastic containers that constitute another source of exposure,’ it went on. And it added that infants chew and suck cloths and clothing, and crawl around on carpets, all often made from synthetic materials.

Nor is that all. One-third of all fish caught by British boats contain microplastics, and they have also been found in over four-fifths of all samples of tap water surveyed on every continent (bottled water usually has much more).

So what harm is all of this doing to us? The short answer is that we don’t know. Research is only now getting seriously under way.

Scientists are most worried about us breathing in microplastics, as in the Beckenham home. Swallowing them in food and water causes less concern because most will be excreted out of the body.

‘Infant formula prepared in bottles can release millions of microplastics, and many processed baby foods are packaged in plastic containers that constitute another source of exposure,’ it went on (stock image)

But the smaller the particle is, the more likely it is to penetrate very deep into the lungs, and to stay there.

Early findings from a landmark £5 million study at Utrecht University found that adding microplastics to human tissue caused it to become inflamed, partly because the immune system cannot cope with them.

The researchers compared that to the effect of asbestos and are concerned that it could exacerbate arthritis, diabetes, allergies and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Campaign

There is also increasing concern about babies in the womb. An Italian-led study found microplastics on both sides of human placentas, and a recent study of rats found that mothers did pass them to their foetuses, where they ended up in their brains, hearts, lungs, livers and kidneys. They also appeared to reduce birth weight.

Other studies have shown them to reduce sperm counts in mice. And there are fears they may disrupt cells, causing cancer. Perhaps ominously, they have been found in malignant lung tissue biopsies.

Unfortunately, there is no way of removing microplastics from the environment. Indeed, they will increase as more and more existing plastic pollution breaks down.

The campaign has scored many successes, including a dramatic reduction in plastic bags following the imposition of a charge (file photo)

The only solution is to reduce our use of plastic as much as possible — which has long been the aim of the Mail’s campaign.

The campaign has scored many successes, including a dramatic reduction in plastic bags following the imposition of a charge, and the banning of single-use plastic straws, plastic-stemmed cotton buds and stirrers, and plastic microbeads in cosmetics.

But there is still a long way to go. Ministers should accelerate plans to tax plastic packaging and put refundable deposits on plastic bottles (to encourage their return), and look to do more still.

For this is no longer a matter of reducing litter, or even preventing damage to the environment. It is a matter of safeguarding our own- and our children’s- health.

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