The Malta Independent 5 December 2023, Tuesday
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Microplastics: unseen pollutants with profound impacts on health and the environment

Sunday, 17 September 2023, 08:25 Last update: about 4 months ago

Written by Emma Camilleri and Prof. Renald Blundell

In recent years, a silent threat has been infiltrating our ecosystems and impacting our lives in ways we couldn't have imagined. Microplastics, tiny particles of plastic less than 5mm in size, have become ubiquitous, pervading our environment, food and water sources. Today we will explore what microplastics are and their overall impact on our health and ecosystem.


What are microplastics?

Microplastics are fragments, fibres or beads that originate from the breakdown of larger plastic items or are intentionally manufactured at small sizes for various industrial and commercial applications. Fragments result from the breakdown of larger plastic objects, fibres originate from textiles and synthetic materials, while microbeads are tiny plastic spheres used in personal care products like face scrubs and toothpaste.



The impact of microplastic on health

The impact of microplastics on human health is an area of ongoing research, and while the full extent of the effects is not yet fully understood, studies have raised concerns about potential risks. The following are some examples on how microplastics can be detrimental to our health:

1.     Ingestion and Absorption: Microplastics can enter the human body through the ingestion of contaminated food and water. Once ingested, they can be absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract and potentially enter the bloodstream and various organs.

2.     Inflammatory Response: Microplastics have been shown to trigger inflammatory responses in the body. Animal studies have demonstrated that exposure to microplastics can lead to the activation of immune cells, the release of pro-inflammatory molecules and the potential for chronic inflammation, which is associated with a range of health problems.

3.     Chemical Exposure: Microplastics have the ability to adsorb and accumulate harmful chemicals from the surrounding environment. These chemicals include persistent organic pollutants (POPs) like pesticides, flame retardants and industrial chemicals. When ingested, microplastics can act as carriers, facilitating the transport of these toxic substances into the body, potentially causing adverse health effects.

4.     Oxidative Stress and Cell Damage: Studies suggest that microplastics can induce oxidative stress, an imbalance between the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and the body's antioxidant defence mechanisms. This oxidative stress can lead to cellular damage and disruption of normal cellular functions.

5.     Potential for Organ Damage: Microplastics have been found to accumulate in organs such as the liver, kidneys and intestines. Prolonged exposure to microplastics and the associated chemicals they carry may contribute to organ damage, impaired organ function and long-term health consequences.

6.     Disruption of Gut Microbiome: Emerging research indicates that microplastics may disrupt the balance of the gut microbiome, which plays a crucial role in digestion, nutrient absorption, immune function and overall health. Alterations in the gut microbiome have been linked to a variety of health conditions, including metabolic disorders and immune dysregulation.

7.     Potential for Pathogen Transmission: Microplastics can harbour and transport pathogenic microorganisms. The presence of microplastics in the environment could potentially increase the spread of harmful bacteria, viruses and other pathogens.

Although ongoing research is still trying to understand the overall health impacts of microplastics, the potential hazards associated with their exposure emphasise the importance of proactive measures to reduce their presence in our environment and minimise human exposure.


The impact of microplastics on the environment

Microplastics pose significant threats to the environment and ecosystems, affecting various organisms and ecological processes. The following are a few of their effects:

1)     Marine Life: Marine organisms are particularly vulnerable to microplastic pollution due to their direct exposure to aquatic environments. The ingestion of microplastics can have severe consequences for marine life:

a.      Species Mortality: Marine animals, including fish, seabirds, turtles and marine mammals, often mistake microplastics for food. Ingestion of these particles can lead to physical blockages, internal injuries, reduced feeding efficiency and ultimately death.

b.     Reproductive and Developmental Effects: Microplastics can interfere with the reproductive success of marine organisms. They may disrupt hormone regulation, impair reproductive processes and hinder embryo development, leading to reduced population growth rates.

c.      Bioaccumulation and Biomagnification: Microplastics have the potential to accumulate and magnify within the food web. Predatory species that consume microplastic-contaminated prey may experience biomagnification, where the concentration of microplastics increases at higher trophic levels.

d.     Trophic Transfer: Microplastics can be transferred from prey to predator, potentially affecting the health and survival of species at different trophic levels. This transfer of microplastics through the food chain can have far-reaching consequences for entire ecosystems.

2)     Terrestrial Ecosystems: Microplastics also impact terrestrial ecosystems, including soil, plants and terrestrial organisms:

a.      Soil Contamination: Microplastics can accumulate in soils through the application of sewage sludge or the use of plastic mulches in agriculture. Their presence in soil may affect soil health, nutrient cycling and the growth of plants.

b.     Plant Health and Growth: Studies indicate that microplastics can impair seed germination, root development and overall plant growth. These effects can have cascading consequences on ecosystem dynamics and agricultural productivity.

c.      Soil Organisms: Soil-dwelling organisms, such as earthworms and microorganisms, can be exposed to microplastics, potentially disrupting their ecological roles and functions. Changes in the soil microbiome can impact nutrient cycling and soil fertility.

3)     Ecological Interactions: Microplastics can disrupt various ecological interactions, altering community dynamics and ecosystem functioning:

a.      Habitat Alteration: Accumulations of microplastics on beaches, in rivers and other natural habitats can alter the physical and chemical properties of these environments. This can impact the behaviour, distribution and survival of species reliant on these habitats.

b.     Trophic Interactions: The ingestion of microplastics by primary consumers can disrupt trophic interactions within food webs. This can affect predator-prey dynamics, energy transfer and the overall stability of ecosystems.

c.      Microbial Interactions: Microplastics can serve as substrates for microbial colonization, potentially altering microbial communities and their interactions. This can have cascading effects on nutrient cycling, decomposition processes and overall ecosystem functioning.

4)     Long-term Environmental Persistence: One of the significant concerns with microplastics is their long-term persistence in the environment. Due to their durable nature, microplastics can remain in ecosystems for extended periods, leading to a chronic and ongoing pollution issue.


What can we do?

Reducing and avoiding microplastic pollution requires a collective effort involving individuals, industries and policymakers. Some strategies are:

1)     Transition to Sustainable Alternatives:

a.      Single-use plastics: Minimise the use of single-use plastics, such as bags, straws and disposable cutlery, by opting for reusable alternatives like cloth bags, stainless steel straws and bamboo utensils.

b.     Personal care products: Choose personal care products that are free from microbeads. Look for natural exfoliants like sugar, salt or plant-based materials instead.

c.      Synthetic textiles: Consider purchasing clothing made from natural fibres like cotton, linen or hemp, as they shed fewer microfibers compared to synthetic materials. Use washing bags or filters specifically designed to capture microfibers during laundry.

2)     Responsible Waste Management:

a.      Recycling: Properly sort and recycle plastic waste according to local recycling guidelines. This reduces the chances of plastic ending up in landfills or the environment.

b.     Waste reduction: Adopt a conscious approach to minimise waste generation. Choose products with minimal or no packaging and buy in bulk to reduce the amount of plastic packaging waste.

c.      Proper disposal: Ensure that plastic waste is securely contained and properly disposed of in designated waste bins to prevent it from entering water bodies or being carried away by winds.

3)     Improved Industrial Practices:

a.      Microplastic-free products: Industries should phase out the use of microplastics in manufacturing processes, especially in personal care products, detergents and cleaning agents. Encourage the development and use of biodegradable or natural alternatives.

b.     Plastic pellet management: Industries using plastic pellets in production should implement stringent measures to prevent pellet spills and improve containment practices to minimise the release of these small plastic particles into the environment.

4)     Policy and Regulation:

a.      Ban or restrict microbeads: Governments can enact legislation to ban or restrict the use of microbeads in personal care products, promoting the transition to environmentally-friendly alternatives.

b.     Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR): Implement EPR policies that hold manufacturers accountable for the post-consumer management of their products, incentivising them to adopt eco-friendly designs and reduce the environmental impact of their products.

5)     Public Awareness and Education:

a.      Informative campaigns: Raise public awareness about microplastics, their sources and their impact on the environment and human health through educational campaigns, social media and community outreach programmes.

b.     Consumer choice: Encourage individuals to make informed choices by selecting products that are free from microplastics and have minimal environmental impact.

c.      Behavioural changes: Promote responsible behaviours such as proper waste disposal, reducing plastic consumption and participating in beach or river clean-up activities.

6)     Research and Innovation:

a.      Scientific research: Support and fund scientific research to advance our understanding of microplastics and their impacts on ecosystems and human health. This research can guide policy decisions and foster innovative solutions.

b.     Alternative materials: Encourage the development and use of biodegradable or compostable materials as alternatives to conventional plastics. Invest in research and innovation to create sustainable materials with reduced environmental impact.

By implementing these strategies collectively, we can significantly reduce the release of microplastics into the environment, mitigate their impact on ecosystems and work towards a cleaner, healthier planet.



Renald Blundell is a biochemist and biotechnologist with a special interest in Natural and Alternative Medicine. He is a professor at the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, University of Malta


Emma Camilleri is currently a medical student at the University of Malta


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