A Microscopic Threat for Our Health and the Environment

There is one thing we do every day, which endangers our species.

One of the many, too many, unintended effects we create in our environment has been ignored by us individuals and governments alike until a couple of years ago.

I am not talking about climate change, nor about other well-known pollutions.

There is a side effect of a side effect. Microplastics.

In the last century, plastics and rubber have been released into the environment by a score of sources:

  • industrial production

The Life spans of Pollutants

Some pollutants (like noise and light pollution) have a very short lifespan, in the order of the seconds. As soon as we remove or silence the source, the noise field is reverted to its unaffected status. This stays true even if effects on the health of biological beings remains for a longer time frame, up to some years.

Other pollutants feature a medium term presence in the environment, in the order of days, months or years. These are chemicals, like CO (carbon monoxide), NO (Nitrogen Monoxide) and thousands of other different air pollutants that we manage to create as a daily footprint of our dominance of this planet.

We breathe them back also thanks to Particulate Matter (also known with its acronym “PM”, another type of atmospheric pollution that are merrily pumping out every second) which is a pretty damn efficient way to deliver toxic and carcinogen chemicals, collected in the air, directly to our lungs.
Just to be sure that with every cough we can feel proud of ourselves for how cool we are to mess up with the precarious biochemical balance of the troposphere.

Other chemicals affect waters and the soil, and we are drinking and eating them back through virtually everything we ingest: our sodas and coffee, vegetables, meat and fish, both of which have the undisputed advantage of having accumulated unwanted chemicals into their fat and lean mass, throughout their entire lives, so we can cheerfully enjoy high levels of Hazmat concentration with each bite.

Some pollutants, like CO2 (Carbon Dioxide), Methane, NO2 (Nitrogen Dioxide) and other Greenhouse Gases (GHG in short) are even more pesky: they do have a short lifespan, but their accumulation leads to very long-term effects on the climate of our planets. By this I mean GHG are bound to push our climate into a new artificially induced “hothouse Earth” period.

Let me get this straight: through Greenhouse Gases we are not endangering the Earth as a planet.

We are “just” endangering our existence as humankind.

The life span of plastics

Most plastics have instead a very long half-life, in the range of several dozens years.

In terms of accumulation, this means that we have a problem.

It is not enough to suspend the release of plastics into the environment to terminate their presence and effects.

Most plastic we used during our lives will outlive us.

Most plastic we used during our lives will outlive us, and will be eaten by our sons, daughters and grandchildren.

The fact that plastics and rubbers are so stable to chemical reduction is the actual reason they are so popular in all industrial and household applications.
We would never buy a soda in a plastic bottle that in three weeks from production were decomposed to a point where it would start leaking.
Not to mention tires we needed to change every Sunday or a sweater which loosed part of the sleeve ten days after purchasing.

Plastics we produce will be with us for a very long time.

Even more frightening, plastics that we produce will be IN us for a very long time.

How long does it take to be completely gone? The Plastic Garbage Project

Remember that shampoo bottle you used on the beach on July, 25 2003?
Or that plastic bag which was swept away from your terrace on November, 13 2012?

They ended up in the Ocean.

And that is good, we could believe in first place: after all oceans are so immense that my plastic bag will float there without annoying anyone.
No human will even see it any more.

Right, no human will see it any longer, but not much longer after it had been dispersed, it was already reduced into tiny little pieces, 1 millimeter (1/25 of an inch) across or even much smaller (down to 2 micrometers, or 2 thousandths of a millimeter).

We call these tiny plastics particles “microplastics”.

Small fishes inadvertently ingest dozens of those microplastics, either directly or by eating tiny crustaceans (like krill) or smaller fishes.
Larger fishes eat those small fishes, along with several hundreds more each with their respective load of microplastics, before being eaten by a tuna fish.
Tunas eat a very large number of lower-tier fishes during life that can last up to 50 years. And they accumulate micro plastics in their bodies (not only in their stomachs, which we don’t eat, but in their meat).

I enjoyed eating tuna more than I do now. I still like the taste and the consistence, and how it blends with olive oil and most salads.

But when I open a tuna can, I am painfully aware that there is more in it that I would like to eat.

Every time we wash our fleeces and other synthetic clothes (and, gee, I do want to wear clean clothes) we release a small teaspoon of polyester fibers into the washing water, almost like if we wanted to make the world less bitter by adding plastics to it.

These fibers, which account as microplastics, are too small to be caught by our washing machine filters or even by our town wastewater treatment plants, and are therefore sent directly to the nearest ocean. Yeah!

Every time we brake our car, and with every mile we drive, we release small rubber fragments onto the paved surface. Rain flushes them into the ditches, where they are partly absorbed by the local soil, and partly sent downstream through rivers into the Oceans.

Multiply that tiny quantity by the number of circulating cars and trucks and multiply again by the yearly mileage and the number of braking.

Add to that the mass of the tires changed every year and you get, who would have thought of it, the total mass of new tires produced and sold every year.

In 2018 we will produce globally a whopping 19 billion kilograms of tires.

That is 2.5 kilograms per person. Each year.

Imaging using the cheese grater to munch down a small tire. And then pouring the dust into the pure waters of a crystal clean mountain river.

I would hope this is a shocking image, but I am pretty sure it will not be disgusting enough, because we are too accustomed to these images, and ignore them.

After all, I don’t want to run my car on wheel rims; I want to be safe and have a new and reliable set of tires.

The Floating Plastics Islands

All the plastics we produce, notwithstanding their chemical composition, have a common trait: they are lighter than water. They float.

Since plastics cannot sink by themselves, they are subject to ocean currents, which form enormous superficial gyres, think of Country-wide whirlpools.

There are 5 of these gyres floating in our oceans, mostly formed by accumulation of small pellets under a centimeter / half an inch, which only makes them more dangerous to the marine ecosystem.

Image: alana olendorf eport
Some perspective on the Gyres (Source: Greenpeace)

Not everything is lost.

Governments and super-governmental entities are more and more aware of this threat to humans and the environment.

As we were able to invert the trend of the Ozone hole in the Nineties, there is hope that we will be able to stop, or to be more realistic, to contain, this dramatic impact.

One for all, there is a bold ongoing effort, the Ocean Cleanup Project.
They aim to catch 50% of the floating plastics in the next 5 years, thanks to a simple yet ingenious trap system, which floats as the plastic debris and is driven by the ocean currents.

A rendering of the upcoming pilot deployments laid down by the Ocean Cleanup Project.

It is my hope (and should be yours too) that we can amend the unbelievable mess we made.

What we can do

In the meanwhile, the best we can do is:

  1. Keep ourselves informed

Call to action

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