We knew that microplastics—the tiny pieces of broken-down plastic bottles and other garbage—can now be found everywhere from Arctic ice to bottled water to seafood. But it turns out that it’s even more common in the ocean than scientists previously feared. As plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, it never fully disappears. “We realized that it was out there, but it’s just smaller than we were capturing,” she says. To collect pieces that would escape through a net, Brandon used a stainless steel bucket to take samples of water, and then used custom polycarbonate filters in the lab to capture the extra-small plastic. The pieces were so small that they couldn’t easily be identified, even with a microscope, so the researchers used technique that looks for the unique fluorescent properties of the material. Older studies had estimated that in a cubic meter of ocean water, there are 10 pieces of larger microplastic. The new study estimates that there are 8.3 million pieces of the smaller microplastic in the same amount of water.
Microplastics are harmful to marine organisms and ecosystems, but their effect on human health remains unclear. That said, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) says we should probably be worried, though:
“There is scientific uncertainty about the hazards of microplastic issues. There is concern that microplastics could have adverse health effects on humans as they move through the marine food web. Microplastics both absorb and give off chemicals and harmful pollutants. Plastic’s ingredients or toxic chemicals absorbed by plastics may build up over time and stay in the environment. It is not known if you can be exposed to these pollutants by eating contaminated seafood.”
Most of the microplastics observed in the new study were collected from regions close to shore, which suggests the source is runoff pollution from land. Microplastic waste comes from a variety of sources, including synthetic microfibres found in clothing and skincare products. Over time, much of this plastic, whether big or small, breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, but they linger in the environment for extended periods of time.
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They cannot be removed by wastewater treatment, and much of this waste ends up in our oceans. Governments and other top officials need to enact legislation to limit the use of products that contribute to microplastic pollution, but there are things you can do as well, such as not using products that contain microplastics, avoiding single-use plastics, using paper bags, recycling, and, of course, not throwing plastic waste into any body of water. After all, it may just end up back in your body anyways.