Microplastics is an environmental buzzword, featuring in the news since Extinction Rebellion began making headlines two years ago. While it is now a well-known issue, the label ‘micro’ suggests there’s always a larger problem at hand.

A recent seafood study found plastic in all samples analysed. Broken down from plastic waste, these small particles are beginning to add up.

So, is it time to start worrying about microplastics? Is avoiding seafood an acceptable solution? And, if it’s not too late already, what can be done to stop plastic creeping deeper into the food chain?

‘Micro’ means small. Is this a big deal? 

The new study was a joint venture between the University of Exeter and University of Queensland. They found traces of plastic in all 5 most common seafoods bought at a market in Australia – prawns, sardines, squid, crabs, and oysters.

According to lead author Francisca Ribeiro, “a seafood eater could be exposed to approximately 0.7mg of plastic when ingesting an average serving of oysters or squid, and up to 30mg of plastic when eating sardines, respectively.” For context, 30mg is approximately equivalent to a grain of rice.

Plastic cup on beach. Photo credit: Pixabay

And it’s not just a marine issue. Joint research carried out in part by King’s College London has shown plastic fibres are even contaminating the air we breathe.

This is hardly a new issue. The first study into synthetic polymers found in human lungs dates back to the late 1990s. So, durable plastic fibres were considered candidate agents contributing to lung cancer over twenty years ago. But little has yet been done to mitigate their spread.

If microplastics are in the air we breathe as well as the food we eat, simply avoiding seafood isn’t a solution. Plastics have even been detected in beer and honey. Understanding the risks associated with ingesting microplastics is key to triggering widespread action. 

Do we know the risks of microplastics in seafood? 

Microplastics are already used, intentionally, in medicine. Their durability makes them ideal for carrying medicine into bodily tissues. A UK government study speculated that the microplastics we take in from the environment could act in a similar way, reaching not just the deep lung, but all bodily tissue. 

Current studies emphasise how we simply don’t yet know enough about the potential impact of microplastic pollution.

A 2018 investigation into the risks to humans described how chemical additives in plastic may have poisonous effects. It also explained the possibility of increased inflammatory response and overall disruption of the gut microbiome, linked to many chronic diseases such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. This effect has been tested in the lab with blue crabs, but more research into human outcomes is required.

Plastic waste on shoreline. Photo credit: Pixabay

The concerning truth is that we just don’t know enough about how microplastics in seafood – or elsewhere – interact with our bodies. The sea is a major sink for microplastic debris. From there, the particles become ubiquitous in our environment, including in the air we breathe and the food we eat. 

We should be concerned by this growing environmental fallout. Reducing plastic usage wherever possible, particularly single-use plastic, is an important step to delay further damaging our planet.

Slowing the spread of microplastics is essential, as it gives scientists time to discover their true impacts on our health. Until then, we’ll have to accept the full range of unknown risks. 

Related Topics