Despite increasing reports of widespread microplastic pollution – in drinking water, in seawater, and in food supplies – many studies are still being conducted to determine the quantifiable dangers of microplastics.
Microplastics are defined as any piece of plastic measuring between five millimeters (5 mm) and one micrometer (1 μm) in size. Plastics smaller than that – measuring between one micrometer and 100 nanometers (100 nm) – are defined as sub-microplastic. And plastics below 100 nm in size are defined as nanoplastics. All of these types of miniscule plastic particles are typically formed from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic, such as plastic bags, plastic bottles, or microfiber clothing.
While initial detection of plastic particles was performed purely through visual identification, newer methods have been developed to more accurately identify microplastic particles, such as thermal analysis, gas chromatography, and mass spectrometry. These methods can determine the chemical composition of the particles, as well as their size and shape, making them detectable at micrometer sizes.
Unfortunately, although it is known that both animals and humans can absorb microplastic particles through ingestion, studies are too new to accurately understand the exact effects of microplastic contamination and ingestion. It is generally understood that degrading plastics and smaller plastic particle sizes present a higher potential for environmental toxicity, as smaller sizes can be ingested and contaminate smaller and smaller organisms, thus propagating these particles through the resultant food chain. But the issue remains that researchers need to determine which plastic types, particles sizes, and particle shapes contribute to specific toxic effects. All of this requires much more dedicated long-term study.
The ubiquity and versatility of plastic as a material means that this is an issue that will not be going away any time soon. Researchers have taken the first step in identifying the potential problems and dangers with degrading plastics and microplastic contamination, but until more definitive contamination results and solutions are discovered, the best solution for consumers is to become more conscious and responsible when it comes to the use, recycling, and disposal of plastic products moving forward.
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