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Tiny Particles of Plastic Now Pollute Our Food, Water and Even the Clouds

From the deep ocean to the sky, microplastics are now everywhere, and fossil fuel firms are still ramping up production.

The bad news about the plastic crisis often seems as ubiquitous as plastic itself. But, like many pressing issues, it also seems to come and go with a breeziness that belies its urgency. That couldn’t be truer than it is in the case of three recent reports on the penetration of microplastics, nanoplastics and plasticizers into our food and water and, therefore, into our bodies.

The first story came from the intrepid investigators at Consumer Reports (CR). They tested a variety of foods in a variety of packaging and the results were shocking. Plasticizers, the chemical components that make plastic so malleable and, therefore, so ubiquitous, are infused throughout our food supply, from Annie’s Organic Cheesy Ravioli to Wendy’s Crispy Chicken Nuggets, from General Mills Cheerios to Del Monte Sliced Peaches in 100% Fruit Juice, from Hormel Chili With Beans to Chicken of the Sea Pink Salmon in Water. Those products all topped their respective categories for “total phthalates per serving.”

Amazingly, a full 99 percent of the well-known, widely consumed products tested by CR conclusively showed we regularly eat a hearty helping of phthalates and bisphenols when we chow down a variety of foods. These chemicals can mimic estrogen and disrupt the endocrine system. In the case of a “well-studied,” widely used phthalate called “DEHP,” CR noted its links to “insulin resistance, high blood pressure, reproductive issues, early menopause, and other concerns at levels well below the limits set by American and European regulators.”

Another study, this time by Ocean Conservancy and the University of Toronto, found microplastics in 88 percent of the 16 types of protein they tested, “including seafood, pork, beef, chicken, tofu, and three different plant-based meat alternatives.” Based on these findings and those from a related study, scientists estimated the average American consumes 11,500 microplastics every year. Depending upon the variety of proteins a given American eats, that figure could rise as high as 3.8 million microplastics consumed annually. “Beef” may be “what’s for dinner,” but it comes with a heaping side of microplastics.

Finally, researchers at Columbia University used a technique called “stimulated Raman scattering microscopy” to reveal heretofore unseen nanoplastics hiding in bottled water. What they found was a staggering 110,000 to 370,000 plastic particles in each liter of water tested, with 90 percent of those being nanoplastics. Nanoplastics range between one nanometer and one micrometer in size. Compare that to microplastics, which range from one micrometer up to five millimeters. By further comparison, a human hair can range between 17 and 181 micrometers.

In other words, nanoplastics are really, really small.

So small, in fact, that a 2022 paper on the “biointerface” between humans and nanoplastics highlighted a number of studies all pointing to the penetrating power of these stray substances, produced so prolifically by the petrochemical industry. The authors cited, among other things, an animal-based study that found nanoplastics “penetrate the intestinal barrier” and “can be further translocated into blood vessels.” Additionally, nanoplastics were found to “cross the blood-brain barrier after intravascular injection and accumulate in the brain.” Yet another study found nanoplastics crossing the “placental barrier through passive diffusion,” and the authors went on to postulate that all of this indicates the likelihood that nanoplastics are respirable, meaning those tiny particles “may penetrate the blood-air barrier and may be transported into the blood-circulating system.”

It’s unnerving to think we might be breathing in tiny particles of plastic that can enter our bloodstreams through our lungs. It’s even more unnerving given recent revelation that we are quite literally “uploading” these nettlesome plastic particles into the clouds.

Cloudy, With a Chance of Plastic

A recent Nautilus roundup on the omnipresence of plastics cited a November 2023 paper published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters. In it, the researchers reported finding microplastic fibers in liquid samples from “clouds at the top of Mount Tai in eastern China.” Those samples included microplastic fibers “from clothing, packaging, or tires.” The lower the altitude of the clouds they sampled, the more particles they found. The paper’s authors speculate on the climate-altering synergy of these plastic-infused clouds because some older particles that “attract elements like lead, oxygen, and mercury, could lead to more cloud development.”

As if on cue, a team of researchers in Newfoundland, Canada, deployed a simple glass cylinder to record possible changes in the amount of microplastic particles that might’ve rained down when “pristine” Hurricane Larry hit the province in 2021. Larry was deemed “pristine” because it hadn’t yet made landfall after forming over the Atlantic. Even better, according to a detailed report in Wired, it passed over the “North Atlantic gyre,” a swirling mass of floating plastic refuse created by ocean currents. By simply gathering samples at intervals before, during and after Larry’s landfall, researchers saw a “spike” in microplastic particles from “tens of thousands” to as high as “113,000.” By tracing those particles with “back trajectory modeling,” researchers “confirmed that Larry had picked up the microplastics at sea, lofted them into the air, and dumped them on Newfoundland.”

Of course, Hurricane Larry brought a smorgasbord of microplastics with it. The lead author of the paper, Anna Ryan of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, told Wired the team didn’t see “an overwhelming amount of one certain polymer — there’s a real variety.” While variety might be “the spice of life,” we’d probably prefer our hurricanes remain unseasoned.

Denial Is Not Just a River in Egypt

Sadly, the problem of plastic entering the atmosphere is echoed in the food chain. That was confirmed by research scientist Oladimeji Ayo Iwalaye’s study of zooplankton. Based at the University of British Columbia, she discovered that “tiny shrimp-like creatures called Cyphocaris challengeri — a key food for herring, juvenile salmon and rockfish — are eating the microplastic fibres less than five millimetres in length.” This creates a “junk food effect” as the “empty calories” of microplastics “accumulate up the food chain.” Even worse, Iwalaye told Sea West News, the microplastic fibers generate heavier poop that falls quickly in the deep sea where it is “likely consumed by bottom-dwelling sea life like crabs, sea stars, worms or sea cucumbers.”

Another researcher, Dalia Saad of the University of the Witwatersrand, studied freshwater Nile tilapia, a species widely sold in fish markets along one of Earth’s most famous, lifegiving rivers. Her team found microplastic particles contaminating all 30 of the freshly caught fish purchased at an open-air market alongside the river. As one report noted, the Nile is “the lifeblood of 300 million people across 11 nations.” But, like the food tested in the United States, a key source of protein for millions of Africans carries with it the sad signature of this plastic age. Sadder still, plastic’s hydrocarbon-generated cousin — climate pollution — is also taking a toll on the Nile’s fish, as the river’s stocks “plummet” in part due to rising temperatures.

The oil industry’s far-reaching impact was also felt last November in the Nile River Basin, when Kenya hosted the third of five rounds of the United Nations-mandated Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution. Known colloquially as the “Global Plastics Treaty,” negotiators from 175 nations tried but failed to reach a long sought-after global agreement on plastic. Environmental activists cited by Associated Press said rules governing the entire lifecycle of plastic were scuttled by oil producing nations. Those petrostates prefer to shift the focus to waste management, thus preserving plastic production and “managing” the ensuing pollution on the back end. That’s instead of making less plastic in the first place.

It’s a well-worn tactic.

Before the preceding round of treaty negotiations in 2022, Reuters uncovered the duplicitous strategy of “plastic industry groups representing … ExxonMobil Corp, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Dow Inc.” Publicly, these companies express support for a global agreement to “tackle” plastic pollution. Privately, they fund and deploy trade organizations like the American Chemistry Council (ACC) to “help steer treaty discussions away from production restrictions.” Reuters knows that because they saw a copy of an email in which the ACC proposed an Orwellian-named alliance called “Business for Plastic Pollution Action.”

The alliance’s stated goal was to devise “strategies to persuade conference participants to reject any deal that would limit plastic manufacturing.” They seek to “shift the debate,” Reuters wrote, by “focusing governments’ attention on the benefits of plastic.” They also planned to “hold monthly meetings and share policy recommendations with governments,” aka lobbying. And lobby they have. According to the Center for International Environmental Law, the fossil fuel and chemical industries sent 143 registered lobbyists to press their case at the recently failed round of negotiations. That amounted to a 36 percent increase in lobbyists over the previous round of negotiations. It turns out that plastic-pushing lobbyists are almost as plentiful as the petrochemical garbage now accumulating in every corner of the globe.

The ACC has also led the charge against legislative action here in the U.S. They predictably opposed the thrice-proposedBreak Free From Plastic Pollution Act.” Immediately after it was reintroduced by Democratic Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and Democratic California Rep. Jared Huffman in October of 2023, the ACC responded by agreeing “that plastic waste should never be in our environment,” but attacked the bill for doing “little to eliminate plastic pollution while doing a lot to damage the U.S. economy.” Instead, they promoted their “5 Actions for Sustainable Change,” which requires “U.S. packaging to have at least 30% recycled plastic by 2030, would appropriately regulate innovative recycling technologies, and develop minimum requirements and standards for recycling around the country.” The ACC’s criticisms were echoed by the Plastics Industry Association, which “slammed” the bill and instead proposed “investments in recycling infrastructure and greater demand for recycled content through minimum requirements and stronger end-markets.”

What they really object to is anything that curtails the amount of plastic produced by their petrochemical benefactors. Like their petrostate partners in the global treaty negotiations, they shift the focus from lifecycle management (and interruption) to recycling. The ACC specifically pitches so-called “advanced recycling,” tempting pliable legislators with the tantalizing prospect that we can “implement emerging recycling technologies” to keep on producing plastic, break it down chemically and then reuse it again and again.

But the promise of a circular future belies a barrage of reporting all pointing out the abject failure of recycling. In the U.S., only about 5 percent to 6 percent of plastics are recycled each year, and only about 9 percent of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled, according to MIT Technology Review. These stark facts lead critics of plastic recycling to call it a “myth” and a “lie.” At the very least, it is greenwashing at its most alluring and, given the scope of the crisis, at its most pernicious. It also betrays new evidence in favor of interrupting plastic’s lifecycle.

A report produced by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Environment America Research & Policy Center looked at the impact of plastic bag bans in “five states and cities that cover more than 12 million people combined.” Those bans collectively cut “single-use plastic bag consumption by about 6 billion bags per year.” As the authors point out, “that’s enough bags to circle the earth 42 times.” After enacting a ban in 2022, the state of New Jersey alone eliminated “more than 5.5 billion plastic bags annually,” therefore reducing the number of single use plastic bags destined to degrade and disperse for decades to come. Those are future particles that will not get uploaded to the clouds or ingested by aquatic organisms. That’s because, quite unlike industry-promoted recycling boondoggles, plastic bag bans actually work.

As Grist pointed out, there are now “more than 500 citywide ordinances banning plastic bags in the U.S., as well as 12 statewide bans.” But Grist also noted a backlash to bans on single-use plastics, often on the grounds that restrictions are hypocritical, “bad for businesses” or curtail a consumer’s “freedom” to “choose plastic.” As a result of this backlash, some 18 states have passed “so-called preemption laws, preventing local governments from adopting their own bag bans.” Among the glaring problems with those arguments is the plain fact that the omnipresence of plastic has eliminated our freedom “to choose” its presence in our lives… so much so that the inescapability of plastic pollution has parents asking if breast milk “will hurt my baby?”

As The Washington Post reported, “tiny microplastic particles” have joined pesticides and flame retardants in human milk. The Post cited a 2022 study which found “tiny plastic particles” in “75 percent of 34 breast milk samples studied.” The lead researcher of the 2022 study told The Post the problem comes from the chemicals used to make the plastic — like the phthalates cited in the CR report — which “mimic or interfere with human hormones.” Because those hormones are “fundamental for everything from sleep to hunger to sex,” the “chemicals that disrupt those messages can lead to a wide variety of issues — including fetal development, neurological disorders and even fat storage, leading to obesity.”

For prospective parents, some of whom express concerns about bringing children into an evermore climate-altered world, the prospect of hydrocarbons extending their reach into the endocrine systems of their newborn children only exacerbates their plight. At the same time, fossil fuel corporations now see profitable growth in plastic production as their “Plan B” in a world transitioning away, however slowly, from hydrocarbon energy. But there is no “Plan B” for those of us who prefer to not eat, drink or breathe in the byproduct of their cunning plan for continued profitability. For us, and every living creature on this planet, we can’t even put our heads in the clouds to avoid the plastic dystopia they’re cooking up.

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