Israeli Scientists Show for First Time How Microplastics May Hurt Health

New study at Tel Aviv University suggests that the presence of microplastics can exacerbate the toxicity of organic pollution in the environment roughly tenfold

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Microplastics in seawater and, sometime later, your body.
Microplastics in seawater and, sometime later, your body. Credit: Tunatura / Shutterstock
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Plastic is ubiquitous. It is everywhere. Microplastic – small to microscopic pieces of debris created by the breakdown of plastic – is legion. The question is, what do microplastics do to our health? And the short answer is, we don’t know. No idea.

But a new study done at Tel Aviv University and published in the journal Chemosphere indicates that we should be worried. The presence of microplastics exacerbates the toxicity of organic pollution in the environment roughly tenfold, a phenomenon known as joint toxicity, the team’s specific model found.

Other plastics and contaminants may have different figures, but the direction is clear.

How bad is the problem? Horrifying. Microplastic has been found from the top of Mount Everest to the depths of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the ocean. On the mountain, the snow was ridden with plastic particles from climbers’ gear and in the sea, a single liter of water from the Mariana Trench contained thousands of sundry plastic particles. Microplastic has been found in glaciers at the North Pole.

Visible pieces of plastic have been killing animals in ways we shall not dwell on here. Just this week, ZME Science reported on a new study arguing that “the quantity of plastic on our planet has massively exceeded the safe limits for humans and wildlife,” not just dismaying a shrimp or turtle but impacting planetary systems.

But what about pieces too small to see, in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat (especially if we microwave our lunch in plastic containers)? Is it actually dangerous to us?

Yes, according to basic research conducted at Tel Aviv University by Dr. Ines Zucker of the School of Mechanical Engineering and the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences with grad student Andrey Eitan Rubin.

For their case study, they modeled the interaction of microplastic in the sea – the concentration of which is growing constantly – with triclosan, an antibiotic and antifungal agent that, in 2016, the U.S. banned for use in hygienic products because of uncertainty about its effect on our bodies.

It had already been shown that microplastic adsorbs (attracts) organic molecules, like magnets attract iron. At sea, weathered microplastic turns out to be much more “attractive” to pollutants, Zucker explains.

“We showed that even very low concentrations of environmental pollutants, which are non-toxic to humans, once adsorbed to the microplastic result in significant increase in toxicity,” she explains. The microplastics act like magnets for pollutants, concentrating them on the particle surface.

Every year 6.4 million tons of waste end up in the sea, of which between 60 and 80 percent are plastics.Credit: LUIS ACOSTA - AFP

And thus, when we eat microplastics, especially ones hailing from the sea (in a fish, in seaweed or any other way), the plastic ferries concentrated toxins into our bodies, she says.

Bad. Now for worse: Having found the enhanced adsorption of triclosan to microplastic in a marine environment, they took the combo and changed its environment to biological. “We skipped how it gets to the human gut,” she observes, but for the sake of argument, say you ate a fish. What they found is that in the biological environment, the contaminant de-adsorbs. It falls off. Where does it do that? Somewhere in your body.

The result, they calculate, is tenfold toxicity compared with the toxin without the microplastic.

Plastic alone, contaminant alone – not much toxicity. Together – much toxicity. This is bad. QED.

The upshot is that if you eat microplastics and organic toxins – and you do – the toxins may get released in a concentrated form in certain areas.

Note that this is all theoretical at this point, Zucker stresses. We add that the number of parameters in the interaction between microplastics, toxins and biological systems is vast. But the indication is worrying.

“Even drinking desalinated seawater, which is common in Israel, can expose us to microplastic-enhanced toxicity,” she suggests.

What can we do about all this? Nothing. Meanwhile, try to use less plastic, do less laundry. Think about the error of your environmental ways.

It bears adding that it isn’t true that in contrast to diamonds, plastic is forever. It isn’t, but it can take thousands of years to decompose and while it’s doing that, it breaks down into the very microplastic fibers – from microscopic to a few millimeters in length – that are so worrying.

“The amount of waste dumped into the ocean every year is enormous – the best-known example is the plastic island in the Pacific Ocean, which has an area 80 times larger than the State of Israel,” Rubin says.

This is definitely not somebody else’s problem, he adds: “Our preliminary monitoring data show that Israel’s shores are among the most polluted with microplastic waste. Each of the microplastic particles secreted in these areas has tremendous potential for harm as they serve as an effective and stable platform for any pollutant that they may encounter on their way to the human body.”

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