The looming threat of microplastic pollution

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury | Published: October 30, 2018 21:15:36 | Updated: November 05, 2018 20:06:54

The worst fears of scientists and healthcare professionals regarding microplastic pollution are finally coming true. Recent studies have confirmed the presence of microplastic in food including fishes, soft drinks, plastic wrapped food items and in the stool of human beings. This is alarming because some health experts have linked microplastic poisoning with thyroid problems, kidney diseases, cancer and other serious health complications.

The threat of microplastic was realised by researchers and scientists in the West over the past one-and-a-half decade. Microplastics are plastic debris less than five millimetres in size. These can come from a variety of sources including larger plastic debris that degrades into smaller pieces.

A sub-segment of microplastic is microbeads. These are very tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic which are prevalent in most health and beauty products including facewash, toothpastes, cleansers etc. They were first used in such products around the seventies.

The problem with these tiny particles is that these can easily pass through water filtration systems and end up in oceans and lakes increasing the threat to aquatic life.

Due to the concern against microbeads, on December 28, 2015, US President Barack Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. Through the Act, plastic microbeads were banned in cosmetics and similar products.

But the threat of plastic and microplastic still looms across the world as it is an increasingly threatening source of ocean, river and other water body contamination in all countries of the world including Bangladesh.

According to a report published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) this year on the occasion of World Environment Day, around 73,000 tonnes of plastic waste end up in the sea everyday through the rivers Padma, Jamuna and Meghna in Bangladesh.

The report cited that Bangladesh produces 3,000 tonnes of plastic on a daily basis. Most of the plastic waste, around 6.5 million tonnes annually, is dumped into landfills and rivers, according to the Environment and Social Development Organisation (ESDO).

At the moment the growth of increase in plastic waste is 7.50 per cent, while the growth in bio waste production is 5.20 per cent. Most of the plastic waste accumulates in the rivers while smaller portions flow into the sea. These wastes are consumed by fishes and other aquatic animals, which are later consumed by humans. Recent studies carried out in the West on fish have found plastics in their gut. Microplastic have also been found in tap water of countries around the world and in insects. An investigation in Italy has found microplastic present in soft drinks. Some scientists are of the opinion that microplastics are also present in the PET bottles used to contain soft drinks and mineral water.

This month, following an investigation, the Environment Agency Austria revealed that they have found the presence of microplastic in human stools for the first time. The study examined the stool samples of eight participants from Europe, Japan and Russia. Up to nine different plastics were found out of 10 varieties tested for, in all stool samples. Two of the plastics included polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate.

Researchers estimated, based on this study, that "more than 50 per cent of the world population might have microplastics in their stools" which also signifies that these plastics are reaching the human gut. Smaller microplastic can also flow into the blood stream and affect the liver.

Another study by a two-member team of the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B) recently found the presence of microplastic in several table salt brands in the country. This study found 63.76 micrograms (or 0.063 milligrams) of microplastic in a kilogram of salt tested. An IIT-B official had reasoned that the presence of microplastic in slat is because "there are no checks on how and what is being dumped into the sea".

It is yet to be ascertained how prolonged presence of microplastic in the human system can lead to more health complications. Healthcare experts are worried that microplastic contamination cannot be curbed drastically due to the rampant use of plastic across the world. According to a recent statistic, a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute. This number is expected to jump by 20 per cent by 2021.

Across the world, developed countries are gradually banning plastic products. On the contrary in Bangladesh, plastic use is on the rise. Cosmetics and health products with microbeads are still sold here. Though polythene bags were banned nearly a decade or so back, these are still used in stores and kitchen markets.

It's time that concerned authorities in Bangladesh took drastic steps against plastic use and generate mass awareness about the dangers of plastic and microplastic pollution.

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