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Microplastics Study confirms why Glitter is not so gorgeous

Microplastics Study confirms why Glitter is not so gorgeous

All that glitters is not gold. It's probably micro-plastic 

An Austrian study recently confirmed something that if we just stopped to think about it for a few minutes, we could have worked out for ourselves.  Glitter and other microplastics - tons of it, enters our waterways every day, travels out to ocean, gets eaten by fish or attaches to salt and returns to our homes as food. These green spots below are photos of microplastics in a crustacean, seem through a Fourier-transform infrared microspectrometer in Vienna. (So must be true).

Just where did you think all that glitter was going to end up when you washed it off in the shower or down the sink drain?  Like the rest of us, you probably didn't think much about it, but the reality is that most glitter is micro-plastic and it ends up somewhere. And increasingly that somewhere is in our bodies, some via our oceans, but much more than you might realise, is the plastic we literally consume everyday, just living.

Micro-plastics are everywhere, but celebration times like Christmas means that we are more literally immersed in them than usual. Think about the number of glittered baubles and decorations around your home. Many of these pieces of glitter end up airborne and if you have children or pets on the floor or around trees, they are literally licking or at least touching then sucking microplastics. And when the parties start, we feast on seafood and drink from water bottles.

The problem is that the amount of micro-plastics we are ingesting is a health freight train coming and no one really knows how fast the train is going or if it's gathering speed. 

The study

The study involved eight subjects and was conducted by The Environment Agency Austria. There were three men and five women, aged 33 to 65, each from a different European country - Japan, Finland, Austria, the Netherlands, the UK, Russia, Poland, and Italy. Participants kept a food diary for a week and then provided a stool (poop) sample for testing.

For context, 6 of the subjects ate seafood, 2 chewed gum, all consumed food wrapped in plastic and drank water from PET (polyethelyne terephthalate) - the common plastic water bottle.

The study findings

The study confirmed that humans are ingesting micro-plastics. Surprise! We know that fish, salt and water are riddled with micro-plastics, but apparently we needed a Fourier-transform infrared microspectrometer in Vienna to tell us that there are micro plastics in our stools. 

Fourier-transform infrared microspectometer in hand, Philipp Schwabl, a researcher at the Medical University of Vienna who led the study said: “This is the first study of its kind and confirms what we have long suspected, that plastics ultimately reach the human gut."  (Where the hell did he think they were going to go?)  

The tested poop of every participant was positive for plastics. Of the 10 types of plastic tested for, 9 were found. The most common were the usual suspects - polyethene terephthalate (usually found in plastic bags) and polypropylene (found in bottle caps). On average, there were 20 particles of micro-plastics per 10g of poop. That's a shit load of plastic. 

This result apparently elicited a comment from the study authors, "Based on the results, more than 50% of the world population might have micro-plastics in their stools."  What? I guess, even at 100% hit rate of sample with 20 particles per 10g, it was still only a study of 8 so one has to be cautious. But seriously if you are reading this, you can be pretty sure you have plastic in your body and you might want to take some action instead of waiting a year of two for research to tell you the obvious.

The real issue for humans

You don't have to be a doctor to guess that micro-plastics in our stools is probably the good news part of this study. At least they are positioned at body exit.

The problem with micro-plastics in our bodies is that no one knows yet how they are going to impact human health. Micro-plastics are most likely already in our bloodstreams, lymphatic system and potentially even our livers. The impact of these particles on our gut health and immune responses is unknown, as is if they cross the gut wall.  

There is also the point made by real doctor, Dr Stephanie Wright, a research fellow at King's College London: "What may be of greater concern for these large micro-plastics, is whether any associated chemical contaminants leach off during gut passage and accumulate in tissues."

What are micro-plastics?

Micro-plastics are particles of plastic less than 5 millimetres and they are used in all kinds of products - often for abrasion purposes, but sometimes in the case of glitter, they are the product itself.
Micro-plastics also form when a piece dislodges from a bigger piece of plastic like a synthetic fabric in the wash. Or they are created when they break off larger pieces of plastics through general wear and tear - things like tyres or road paint.

Micro-plastics are present in plastic bottled water in varying amounts (and tap water), pretty much any liquid - beers, sodas and even in rainwater. Microbeads have been banned or are being banned in many countries around the world, but you should check anything with mildly abrasive content like body scrubs to ensure the abrasive content isn't plastic.  

How do micro-plastics get into you?

Micro-plastics exist in varying amounts in most of the things we eat, drink and wear. So basically you eat, drink or inhale them. Kids are particularly susceptible as they have a habit of either directly licking all kinds of things to taste or simply touching things and then putting their hands in their mouths. 

What you can do about micro-plastics

You can certainly limit the amount of micro-plastics in your own body by simple actions:

  • Look out for Beat the Microbead icon on products or consult their website for lists of products that contain microbeads. 
  • Don't drink bottled water - the lids are the worst (see bottled water study info)
  • Don't wrap food in plastic
  • Synthetic carpets and curtains create airborne micro-plastics. Don't buy them.
  • Keep your house clean and free of dust. (A separate study conducted in Scotland into micro-plastics in wild mussels compared the micro-plastic content of mussels to household dust consumed during a meal. In the end, the mussels contained some micro-plastic, but not much compared to what a person consumes while eating. In a year, a person could ingest between 13,731 and 68,415 pieces of micro-plastic via airborne fibres)**. 
  • Stop and think about the amount of plastic packaging you bring into your home and rethink what you really need. Start somewhere - even if it's with just one thing, that you stop buying.
  • Buy or make biodegradable or compostable glitter. Places like Three Mamas sell biodegradable glitter.
  • Choose any one of the zillion alternatives to plastic

If we don't stop using plastic or managing it's disposal, we are going to end up with one hell of an ocean trash can. If you have ever been to a landfill or polluted waterway, you will know that the consequences of that outcome are catastrophic. You can also minimise your contribution to the amount of plastic in the environment, and especially our waterways: 

  • Don't buy or use anything that is obviously micro-plastic. Glitter is an excellent example. Unless you buy compostable glitter, you are definitely adding to the water born micro-plastic problem. When you wash it off, there is only one place it can go. Down the drain and into waterways.
  • Buy high quality fleeces
  • Don't buy synthetics, especially the high fibre stuff like fake fur, woolly jumpers. 
  • When you do wash anything synthetic, including stuffed toys, wash them in a bag to stop fibres escaping into the water
  • Use a front loader washing machine. It sheds less fibres.
  • Keep away from as much plastic as you can, in all it's guises.Things like shiny ribbon, disposable coffee cups, clear disposable cups, some tea bags.
  • Support organisations that use recycled ocean plastics like Econyl or are working to capture plastics or prevent plastics entering our oceans.

Image: Unsplash - Ben Mullins, Markus Spiske, Drz |  Infographic from Ellen MacArthur Foundation

** Study by Center for Marine Biodiversity & Biotechnology, Institute of Life and Earth Sciences, EGIS, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh 
Something incorrect here? Suggest an update below:
Eco Intel Editor

Cathy - even as it is completely scary. Too close to the truth for my liking! 🥶 Friday, 22 November 2019

Cathy Earle
Owner, EORTH

Find the fish .... great picture!! Friday, 22 November 2019