Hot and thirsty? Let’s drink some…microplastics!

Microplastics - tiny plastic particles up to 5mm in diameter - are contaminating everything we consume. How? And what can we do about it?

Just ahead of World Water Day on March 22nd this year, a report released by the United Nations showed that the bottled mineral water industry in India had grown by 27% between 2018 and 2021, the second fastest growth recorded globally. The signs are all  around us – discarded bottles everywhere, wherever you go. But have you considered that with every gulp you take from a plastic bottle, you could actually be introducing microplastic particles into your body? 

In 2018, a study reported that eleven globally sourced brands of bottled water, purchased in nine different countries including India, were tested for microplastic contamination. Of the 259 total bottles processed, 93% showed some sign of microplastic contamination. Such is the menace of microplastics, the invisible pollutant that is not only wreaking havoc on marine and terrestrial ecosystems, but is also permeating all that we eat and drink, through a variety of channels.

World Environment Day 2023 has indeed cranked up the volume of the discourse around plastic pollution. But while the dangers of single-use plastic are in plain sight and easy to comprehend,  the more insidious threat of microplastics needs to be understood better.

It is not just the water we drink. A kilo of sea salt has anywhere between 35 and 575 particles of microplastics. Every 100 gm of fish caught off the coast of Mumbai has about 80 particles of microplastics, according to a survey by Central Institute of Fisheries Education. Microplastics may be causing growth defects in fish, a study by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) revealed. The research also detected microplastics in the waters of Krishna Raja Sagara (KRS) dam in Karnataka’s Mandya district. 

Among fruits and vegetables, apples and carrots have the highest number of microplastics, as found in a study,  conducted to evaluate the number and size of microplastic particles in the most commonly consumed vegetables and fruits.  

But what are microplastics and why should we be concerned about these? What can we, as individuals, do to mitigate the effects of microplastic pollution? 

Tracing the sources

The United Nations Environment Programme defines microplastics as tiny plastic particles up to 5mm in diameter. It is easy to identify some common contributors of microplastics such as single-use plastic, but there are many other hidden ones: fibres released from washing clothes, particles shed from car tyres, microbeads in cosmetic products, road markings and much more. 

And while the components of microplastics differ from one locality to the other, there are only two ways in which they are generated. 

“One is through abrasion and breakdown of larger items that contain plastic. Another is through purposeful creation of microplastic particles (such as microbeads) for consumer products or industrial applications,” said Dr Anna Posacka, Chief Scientific Officer of Ocean Diagnostics, a Canada-based environmental impact company that enables researchers and citizens to have better access to microplastic data.

The microplastics we find in water in plastic bottles are due to the first. 

An example of the second can be found in the microbeads in your face wash. These enter the sewerage system but as the tiny particles cannot be filtered in wastewater plants, they enter the rivers and eventually reach the oceans.

Small marine species consume them, mistaking them for food. As these particles take years to break down, they can be traced eventually in the fish we consume. 

Similarly,  microplastics get transferred to salt from the seawater that is used in salt production. A study conducted by IIT-Bombay in 2018 using salt samples from the markets of Mumbai proved the presence of microplastics. Between 56 and 103 particles were found in each kilogram of the salt sample. However, the same study also provides a solution – filtering seawater to reduce the transfer. 

A row of plastic water bottles
In 2018, eleven globally sourced brands of bottled water, purchased in nine different countries including India, were tested for microplastic contamination. Of the 259 total bottles processed, 93% showed some sign of microplastic contamination. Representational image only. Pic: Pxhere/CC

“Cracks in the roots of lettuce and wheat crops can take in microplastics from the surrounding soil and water,” mentioned a study published in Nature Sustainability by researchers at Yantai Institute of Coastal Zone Research, in China, and Leiden University, in the Netherlands. “Those microplastics can then travel from the roots up to the edible parts of the crop,” it added. Studies note that they reach the stem and leaves through the roots and contaminate the food chain.  

In the marine ecosystem, discarded fish gear or other plastics degenerate into microplastics either from sunlight or movement against rocks. All varieties of plastics that enter the marine ecosystem, including discarded fish gear (contributing to 10% of global marine pollution), break into microplastics over time. Mistaking them for food, fish eat them. A study conducted by the Cochin University of Science and Technology documented microplastic presence in the edible and inedible tissues of nine species of pelagic fishes from the Cochin coast, that are commonly consumed by humans. 

“They (microplastics) largely come from land. All plastic that comes from land eventually makes its way to the oceans through runoff from land into streams and creeks, into rivers and estuaries and from there to the ocean,” said Dr Jesse Meiller, an environmental toxicologist in her Tedx Talk. 

Read more: Plastic on your plate, plastic in your body…and marine litter could be the cause

The bigger concern

Studies have now found the presence of microplastics in the human digestive system, brain and also in breast milk. 

“The chemical used to make plastics – Bisphenol A – is associated with an increased risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. There is a possibility that these chemicals could be found in microplastics too,” says Upendra Nongthomba, Professor,  Developmental and Biomedical Genetics Laboratory, IISc.  

IISc’s research has established the link between microplastics and increased production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and abnormal concentration that can kill cells and harm body organs. “Our unpublished data suggests that the presence of microplastics in the gut itself is enough to cause behavioural defects, by generating gut microbiota dysbiosis,” said the professor. 

“Plastics are a carrier of pollutants including the ‘dirty dozen’- a group of dangerous chemicals called Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs),” explains Monika Khanna Gulati, founder of NCR Waste Matters – a citizen action and awareness group, “As per the World Health Organisation, human exposure for some compounds and scenarios, even to low levels of POPs, can lead to many health effects. These include increased cancer risk, reproductive disorders, alteration of the immune system, neuro-behavioural impairment, endocrine disruption, genotoxicity and increased birth defects.”

There are multiple studies that predict negative outcomes of plastics on human health but even globally, none of them have really established the exact risks to human health from microplastics.

“It’s not easy to study the health hazard impacts of microplastics. Making micro-and nano-plastics in laboratory conditions and characterising them requires sophisticated tools. But it is doable if there are grants from philanthropists and CSR groups to support our work,” says Upendra. The diverse components of plastic and the need for long-term data on human studies add to the complexity. “Each microplastic particle is unique, like a snowflake, and may cause different toxic effects. Researchers have made great progress in developing methods to accurately extract and characterise microplastics in the environment, and it is only in recent years that research has shifted towards human studies,” says Anna.

“The plastic manufacturing industry uses 10,000 to 13,000 different chemicals. Any plastic product has 23 different chemicals that are unknown to us. The industry doesn’t disclose it under the pretext of protecting its intellectual property rights. But it is a sheer violation of human rights.” 

– Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh, Programme Manager, Environmental Governance and Solid Waste Management, Centre for Science and Environment.

Policy paralysis

Lack of funding and unavailability of adequate tools pose a challenge in the research. “All countries must put their collective might behind collecting data, doing research and sharing outcomes to escape the next pandemic. Bring the research to support policy and legislative decisions which are firmly executed on the ground,” says Monika. 

At a policy level, however, there has hardly been any action to tackle the issue of microplastics in India. “The discussion, especially in policy, has not reached a stage where we start discussing microplastics as an issue. Even our policymakers look at plastics as a waste management problem and not really as a threat to human health. We can definitely not expect to have policies on microplastics unless this perspective changes,” says Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh, Programme Manager, Environmental Governance and Solid Waste Management, Centre for Science and Environment. 

“India has good legislation on plastic waste management. There is a ban on single-use plastics which lists close to 21 different plastic items that are illegal to produce, sell, use and distribute. But we failed miserably in effective implementation of the ban”, adds Siddharth. 

Read more: Bans, clean-ups, recycling push: Why all of this has failed to beat plastic pollution

The onus is on us

“Local regulations, industrial activities, waste management practices, and the degree of plastic usage and manufacturing can significantly influence the distribution and prevalence of microplastics in different environments, says Dr Anna Posacka. 

Even if the impact of microplastic pollution on human health has not yet been understood and analysed in granular detail, it is certain that it results in negative outcomes. Mitigating microplastic pollution requires rejection of plastic, and thus, as consumers, here are a few strategies we can adopt: 

  • Avoid using personal care products that contain microbeads. Remember, microbeads are found in exfoliating scrubs, face wash, detergents, dish washing soap and creams. Look for “microbead-free” labels and choose products with natural exfoliants instead.
  • Stop using single-use plastic products which are often discarded within minutes of use. These invariably find their way into our soil and water.
  • Carry your own bottle of water and minimise use of products with plastic packaging.
  • Support citizen groups fighting for the effective implementation of plastic ban laws. 
  • Support policies that aid alternative green technologies through subsidies and tax benefits.
  • Join and share anti-plastic campaigns and petititions, such as this.

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