Environmental Health Promotion
This is the third mini-blog of the series “Environmental Health Promotion” that is part of the 2023 Environmental Sustainability report that emphasizes global health challenges that pose a significant threat to both the environment and human health. The objective is to raise public knowledge of environmental sustainability and global health challenges and offer individuals opportunities to prevent and reduce their exposure to these concerns. With only one world and no alternative planet, even simple actions count for the benefit of everyone. We can all play a part in preserving the world’s health, ensuring that our children and future generations can experience the same quality of life we have or even better.
You can find the other blogs related to the report here:
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic that are typically less than 5 millimeters in size. They are either the byproduct of the breakdown of larger plastic goods—such as water bottles and packaging materials—or they are intentionally manufactured on a small scale for use in commodities such as cosmetics and cleaning products. Microplastics have become a rising cause for concern in recent years as a result of their widespread presence in the environment and potential effects on ecosystems and human health. They have been discovered worldwide, from extreme polar locations to densely populated urban areas. Microplastics can enter waterways via wastewater treatment plants, landfill discharge, and through the decomposition of larger plastic products. These can then be carried by ocean currents and consumed by marine species, potentially harming their health and disrupting ecosystems. They can also infiltrate the soil through agricultural usage of plastic mulch or landfill dumping of plastic debris. Microplastics can be discharged into the atmosphere when car tires and synthetic textiles degrade, which can then be carried by the wind and inhaled by humans and animals.
Microplastics are found in many daily items that we use. Some examples include:
- Personal care products: Facial scrubs, toothpaste, and body wash may contain microbeads that are tiny plastic particles used as exfoliants;
- Clothing: Synthetic fabrics (polyester, nylon, and acrylic) shed tiny plastic fibers when washed, which can end up in wastewater and eventually in the environment;
- Food and drink packaging: Bottles, containers, and bags;
- Cleaning products: Scouring pads and sponges, contain plastic fibers; and in
- Electronics: Cell phones and computers, contain plastic components that can break down into microplastics over time.
How serious is the problem?
Several studies have indicated that there are billions of microplastic particles in the world’s oceans, with concentrations exceeding 1.9 million particles per square mile in locations such as the North Pacific Ocean. It is estimated that the world’s oceans contain around 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing approximately 268,940 tons. These can also degrade into even smaller particles, known as nano plastics, which can enter human cells and organs and cause inflammation and other health problems.
Microplastics have been detected in a wide range of foods and beverages, including bottled water, shellfish, and even beer. They may cause physical damage, inflammation, or other undesirable health effects once inside the body. Chemical additives such as flame retardants, plasticizers, and dyes can be found in microplastics. These compounds may leak from the plastic and into the environment, where they may be absorbed by humans and other creatures. Several of these substances have been related to adverse health effects such as cancer, hormone disruption, and reproductive issues. Microplastics also serves as a breeding environment for pathogenic germs and microorganisms. Humans who come into touch with contaminated microplastics may be at increased risk of infection or other health concerns.
Pregnant women and children may be more vulnerable to microplastics due to their developing bodies and the possibility of exposure via food and water. Individuals who consume significant quantities of seafood may also be more exposed to microplastics and increase their health hazards.
What can I do?
The Australian government’s Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water advises the following measures to avoid and decrease the usage of all types of plastic:
- Adopt reusable items such as water bottles, shopping bags, cups, and travel cutlery.
- Avoid products with unnecessary or excess plastic packaging, such as prepared foods and groceries.
- Say no to disposable plastic cutlery and straws, and avoid plastics that cannot be recycled if other alternatives exist.
- Avoid cosmetics, hygiene products, and cleaning products that contain microplastics.
- Select natural-fiber clothing and textiles over synthetic materials, wash synthetic clothes less often, and air them instead.
Using reusable items and lessening plastic waste is not only more environmentally friendly, but it is also better for our wallets in the long-run. With the greater chances of obtaining better health, a safer environment, and a happier wallet, there is no question about the benefits of avoiding microplastics in all forms. Through your own knowledge and experience, you have the power to assist the most vulnerable and in need.
Author: Fion Chan*
Edited by: Jasmine Therese Arcilla
*Fion is SOGH’s Environmental Sustainability Manager. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and is pursuing a Master of Medical Science in Global Health at the University of Gothenburg.