It was only several days ago that we as a global society celebrated Earth Day, which is an important holiday that brings to light challenges and opportunities as we hope to preserve our planet for future generations. In recent years the issue of plastics have played a pivot role in Earth preservation initiatives and we have seen how the use of plastics has been detrimental to the environment as well as marine life. Many of us have seen heartbreaking pictures of various animals and marine species ingesting pieces of plastic. However, those pieces of plastic have been visible to the naked eye. Although, we can see and find ways to deal with plastics of macro-scale size, what about nanoscale sized particles that are hard to detect with the naked eye? This is the question researchers have been tacking with in recent years as they found that the average person potentially ingests 5g of plastics every week, while the health effects of this consumption is not yet well understood. It is estimated that 90% of drinking water in the US has micro-sized plastics. The problem with plastics is that they are not biodegradable, meaning they do not break down like carbon matter, and therefore as we continue to use plastics, they will continue to accumulate in our environment. Plastic particles that have been accumulating for years since we started to use plastics in the 1950s. A natural question comes to mind how much of these plastics exist in the environment and how do we deal with them?
One resent research study has tried to illuminate the answer to these two pervasive questions. The study, done by an international of team of researchers from University of Toronto, Loyola University Chicago and the Field Museum of Natural history used a creative way to measure the accumulation of plastics in the environment by looking at fish gut’s found in the museum’s collection. One of the authors of the study, Tim Hoellein, a Professor of Biology at Loyola University Chicago says that ”looking at museum specimens is essentially a way we can go back in time.” The museum’s collection caries 2 million fish specimen, which allow researcher’s an incredibly creative opportunity to rummage through time and study the impact of plastics. As the researchers looked at data before and after the use of plastics, they have found that the quantity of micro-plastics in the gut’s went up as plastic production went up, confirming the fact that these hard to detect particles have accumulated in our world. Another interesting thing that the researchers have found was that these micro-plastics also come from items like clothing, which turns our idea of plastic usage on its head. Usually we think of plastics as coming from plastic bags, but in fact the pervasive nature of micro-plastics has permeated all aspects of our society, including materials such as polyester, among others.
Now that we know that micro-scale and hard to detect plastic particles exist in our environment, we need to find ways with dealing with them. A group of researchers at the Washington State University have been interested in this topic and specifically how these tiny particles permeate our drinking water system. One alarming factor accruing to the lead author of the study, Indranil Chowdhury, Assistant Professor in the Department of Engineering said that“based on these findings, it indicates that nanoscale polyethylene plastics may escape from our drinking water treatment processes, particularly filtration.” In resent research Dr Chowdhury and the team have looked at the way tases particles behave in a variety of water environments, such as an acidic environment or one with salts, hoping to find ways to eliminate these tiny particles. However, what they found was that while these environments play a role as to how these particles move, the water filtration system is not removing these micro and nano-scale sized plastics and there is still no answer as to why these nano-particles exist in water systems. Dr Chowdhury concludes that “we don’t know the health effects, and the toxicity is still unknown, but we continue to drink these plastics every day.” His team is working to develop better water filtration methods in hopes of removing these plastics from our environment.
In summary, the message of these two studies is clear, as we continue to use plastics, they will continue to accumulate while we don’t have a way of battling with this accumulation.