United Nations Warns Of Microplastics Ending Up In The Ocean, Says One Quarter Of Fish Contain Plastics — Threat To Human Health And The Fish We Eat

The United Nations has warned that the continued use of microplastics is having a devastating effect on the ocean, and the fish people eat. They released a startling statistic that more than a quarter of the fish in markets in Indonesia and California contain plastic particles, according to the Independent.

It is not only fish that are full of plastics but all marine life including whales, dolphins, sharks, turtles, seahorses, and other sea creatures that mistake floating plastic for food particles. One study suggested a person eating half a dozen oysters would ingest 50 microparticles according to The Guardian.

The alarming facts were released in the United Nations Environment Project report which will be presented at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, which starts on Monday. The startling report found that millions of tons of tiny debris from plastic bags, bottles, toiletries, and clothes are now in the world’s oceans and are causing serious health threats to the entire marine ecosystem and to human health.

This United Nations report has labeled microplastics, which are plastic particles of under 5mm in length, as one of the most dangerous environmental problems facing the world today as the use of plastic is on the rise and recycling methods are not.

In 2010 the United Nations estimated that between 4.8 million and 12.7 million tons of plastic were washed into the ocean and has since shown up in the stomachs of whales, plankton, and other marine life including the fish that people consume. Global plastic production has also dramatically risen in recent years, and between 2004 and 2014, the amount of plastic produced rose by 38 percent, the report said.

Scientists fear that the chemicals in plastics and also natural chemicals found in nature that bind to the man-made plastics could cause poisoning, infertility, and genetic disruption in marine life and in humans.

“The presence of microplastic in foodstuffs could potentially increase direct exposure of plastic-associated chemicals to humans and may present an attributable risk to human health,” the UN report said.

Not only are people eating microplastics by eating fish, but reports now show that people and other land animals could also be breathing in plastic microparticles suspended in the air. The consequence of breathing in microplastics has on the lungs has been likened to the noxious effect of car fumes, but more research is needed to investigate long-term effects.

Frank Kelly, a professor of environmental health at King’s College London, is more concerned about people breathing in microplastics than eating them through consuming marine life.

“There is a possibility, a real possibility, that some of those microparticles will be entrained into the air, and they will be carried around and we will end up breathing them. This is a horizon-scanning issue but the particles are of a size that they are [breathable], they are increasing in number in our environment,” he said.

One of the ways microplastics are being inhaled is after sewage sludge is spread on fields and dries out, according to a French study.

“If we breathe them in they could potentially deliver chemicals to the lower parts of our lungs and maybe even across into our circulation, in the same way as we worry about all the other vehicle-related emissions,” Kelly said.

It is not all bad news and people are starting to realize the detrimental effects of microplastics and are starting to take a stand. A poll conducted in April found that almost two-thirds of the public think plastic microbeads used in exfoliants should be banned. Major manufacturers of toiletries including giant Unilever have stopped using plastic microbeads in their products, such as face scrubs, and other manufactures such as L’Oréal have committed to phasing out plastic beads by 2017. There are safe and natural alternatives that can be used including ground nutshells and salt.

This month, Rory Stewart, U.K.’s parliamentary under secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, indicated that the government should back a ban.

“We are very clear that microbeads do pose potentially a serious threat because this stuff doesn’t biodegrade [and they] can collect toxic material. We have been working very hard to make sure the… members of the European Union sign up to a common position. But if we cannot get a common position out of the European Union, we are open to the possibility of the UK acting unilaterally,” he told MPs.

The Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder, who drafted the resolution to ban microbeads, said, “There is now strong support across the EU to ban this unnecessary source of pollution. The UK must use its influence in Europe to push for an EU-wide ban.” Banning microbeads will stop small amount of the particles of plastic being washed down the drain, but it will not stop larger plastic items being dumped in the ocean and breaking down, which is why excessive plastic use needs to stop.

A vast “plastic soup” of waste floating in the Pacific Ocean, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is twice the size of Texas, and similar patches are found in the other oceans including in areas that do not use plastic. The United Nations have warned that plastics and microplastics are a global issue, with microplastics found everywhere from a Mongolian mountain lake to the deep sea sediments, according to scientist Jacquie McGlade at a recent UN conference.Dr. Thompson is experimenting on the effects of plastics in sediment and warns that the high concentration in sediment is a real problem.”If we carry on with business as usual – it’s not uncomparable – then we are going to reach those thresholds,” he said.

[Photo by Dan Himbrechts/AAP]