Dubai: Can this be true? Are we really eating or drinking in plastic that is the equivalent of one credit card in weight every week?
According to a study commissioned by the environmental charity, the WWF, plastic pollution is so widespread that human beings may be ingesting five grams of plastic a week, the equivalent of a credit card-sized amount.
The study, conducted by Australia’s University of Newcastle, said the largest source of plastic ingestion was drinking water, but another major source was shellfish, which tended to be eaten whole so the plastic in their digestive system was consumed too.
“Since 2000, the world has produced as much plastic as all the preceding years combined, a third of which is leaked into nature,” the report said.
1,769plastic particles average person consumes from water alone
The average person could be consuming 1,769 particles of plastic every week from water alone, it said.
The amount of plastic pollution varies by location, but nowhere is untouched, said the report, which was based on the conclusions of 52 other studies.
In the United States, 94.4 per cent of tap water samples contained plastic fibres, with an average of 9.6 fibres per litre.
European water was less polluted, with fibres showing up in only 72.2 per cent of water samples, and only 3.8 fibres per litre.
WHO allays the fears, for now
The World Health Organisation (WHO) however released a report last month saying the level of microplastics in drinking-water is not yet dangerous for humans but called for more research into potential future risk.
WHO said that data on the presence of microplastics in drinking water is currently limited, with few reliable studies, making it difficult to analyse the results.
WHO said that microplastics larger than 150 micrometres are not likely to be absorbed by the human body but said the chance of absorbing very small microplastic particles, including nano-sized plastics, could be higher, although it said data is limited.
“We urgently need to know more about the health impact of microplastics because they are everywhere — including in our drinking water,” said Maria Neira, director of the Public Health Department at WHO.
So what are we to do?
Dr Johny Pappachan Avookkaran, Internal Medicine specialist at Aster Hospital, Qusais, seconded the finding of the WHO report.
“There is no specific test so far to know if you have a plastic overload in your body,” he said. “The WHO ‘s recent report on microplastics mentions that there has been no direct evidence about the harm microplastics cause. We may not have the know-how of measuring plastic toxicity yet we see animals and fish washed up on the shores with plastic in their intestines.”
On the diseases caused by plastic ingestion, Dr Avookkaran says, “There are no specific diseases. We think microplastics and toxins accelerate the incidence of conditions like cancer, allergies, eye problems and other respiratory issues. But there is no specific test to link the origin of these conditions to plastic toxicity.”
“Nor is there any way of knowing if or how much plastics we may have in our bodies and organs,” he says. “We do know, however, that plastics like the notorious Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates could cause serious health problems, including cancers, birth defects, hormonal imbalance, and an array of other problems. Nanoplastics certainly can and do enter cells and organs. But one can never be sure without further evidence.
Habiba Al Marashy, chairperson of the Emirates Environmental Group (EEG), says, “Micro-plastic pollution is a modern-day silent epidemic. Researchers have been able to find micro-plastics everywhere they have looked, this includes air, soil, rivers and the deepest oceans.
"A study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology also found micro-plastic contamination in 90 per cent of the table salt brands sampled worldwide and another study published by Environment Agency Austria found them in stool samples, confirming that humans do indeed ingest them.
"As of now, we are still unaware of the extent of its impact on our bodies, but we need to create more holistic mechanisms to monitor micro-plastic pollution and to prevent the introduction of micro-plastic particles into our environment.”
Why is consuming plastic so harmful?
Plastic is a petroleum by product, which contains Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which is a known toxin. When plastic is manufactured, it releases dioxins, phthalates, vinyl chloride, ethylene dichloride, lead, cadmium and other toxic chemicals. Since it is non-bidodegradable, when discarded in landfills, the chemicals continue to leech into the soil finding a way back into our food chain.
How plastic harms the human body
According to Dr Avookkaran, while it is not known how the toxins in plastics interact with human body, the inhalation or ingestion of these toxins through microplastics and fumes has an adverse impact on all organs of our body. “We inhale plastic fumes when it is burned or through plastic paints. Besides that, through ingestion of microplastics, we are exposed to all the hazardous toxins such as Bisphenol A (BPA), pthalates, anti-minitroxide, brominated flame retardants, and poly-fluorinated chemicals. Pathology tests of those who may have been exposed to toxins like BPA reveal evidence in the urine samples.
“People have had a host of complains due to exposure to these toxins such as irritation to the eye, vision failure, breathing difficulties, respiratory problems, liver dysfunction, cancers, skin diseases, lung problems, headache, dizziness, reproductive, cardiovascular, genotoxic, and gastrointestinal diseases.
Providing a perspective on the damage to the human body, Dr Prasanth Kadakam Thazhath, medical director and chief consultant at Emirates Ayurvedic Centre, Satwa, says: “Microplastics initially affect the digestive and respiratory systems, then the nervous and endocrine systems. In all cases, plastic toxins attack the immune system. Nanoparticles of plastics affect the intestinal linings and gut bacteria, which is having a major role in improving the immune system and production of essential vitamins.
"It also affects neurological and hormonal systems. Some ingredients in lipsticks and other make-up items contain microplastic. Inhalation of airborne microplastic particles can produce different allergic lung and skin disorders include asthma, pneumonia and acute lung diseases. It can also cause tumours and cancerous conditions.”
Ayurvedic detoxification for plastic overuse
Dr Thazhath advises going in for therapeutic ayurvedic treatment to neturalise the use of plastics.
“Ayurvedic purification therapies using traditional medicines are very effective to reduce the risks of plastics ingested in human body. The treatment is followed by a rejuvenation therapy, which can enhance the immunity.
"We mainly use Amla or Indian Gooseberry as one of the natural sources to support [purification]. Turmeric is another herb used to eradicate the impacts of microplastics.
"Eating pure ghee also plays a big role in the treatment. A herb called Indian madder is recommended in this condition due to its anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant immunomodulatory and hepatoprotective (liver protection) qualities.”
Cherine Naggar, Egpytian, housewife, Dubai resident
“I am very aware of plastic pollution and try my best to eliminate plastics in everyday life. I go for bulk buys for long-life items such as soaps, detergents, and food staples like legumes, grains, etc. I have discarded plastic bottles at home.
"Of course, the main water dispenser is plastic but we use only large metal bottles for storage and for carrying along outdoors. For beauty products, I make my own scrubs and face packs from kitchen materials and buy organic stuff from the market. I am aware that it is not completely possible to eliminate plastic, but I try to minimise its use to the extent possible.”
Sofia Nikalaou, Greek National, Air Hostess, Dubai resident
“I live in company accommodation where it is difficult to live a sustainable lifestyle. But I try my best to reduce the use of plastics. Our airline is also conscious of being eco-friendly so now we recycle plastic covers and hangers our uniforms come in from dry-cleaning. At our accommodation, we have replaced all plastic food containers and bottles with glass ones.
"I have stopped using plastic wraps or cling film and use fabric-origin covers that come with a film of bees wax.”
Amruta Kshemkalyan, Sustainability Consultant and Founder of Sustainability Tribe, Abu Dhabi
“To reduce plastic pollution, I buy package-free items in reusable bags, container and produce bags. There are a few refill stations in the UAE that allow refill bags.
"I invest in plastic-free items like bamboo toothbrush and make my own personal care and household cleaning products with natural ingredients. I also avoid plastic packaging and microbeads products.
"I use clothing made of natural fibres, carry my own reusable water bottle, coffee mug, cutlery so that I don’t have to use any plastic item when outside my home.
“Most importantly, I stand my ground when anyone tries to give me any plastic items in supermarkets, restaurants or free gifts anywhere.”
Say no to plastics
While it may appear that we have no alternatives to plastic, experts say we have to begin somewhere. It may take several years to neutralise the impact of plastics, but you need to play your part in reversing the damage caused by plastic. Start today.
1. Carry your own cloth and paper bags to supermarkets.
2. Discard plastic bottles ethically in recycle bins and replace them with glass, earthenware, steel or copper bottles.
3. Say no to straws.
4. Reject all cosmetics that contain microbeads. There are organic and natural alternatives available.
5. Make your own chemical-free floor cleaners at home and eliminate use of plastic bottles to store these.
6. Choose to buy all long shelf-life items in bulk. These come in cartons and can refill your permanent containers at home. Paper cartons can be recycled.
7. Stitch cloth bags from old bedsheets, curtain and clothes or buy cloth bags, instead of using plastic bags to store stuff at home.
8. Give up eating chewing gum, which contains synthetic food-grade plastic.
9. Carry your own steel fork, knife, spoon and plate set to work to avoid using disposables.
10. Pack your lunch in reusable containers of stainless steel or ceramic.
11. Use permanent razors instead of disposable ones.
12. Stop eating frozen food and cook fresh food (Most frozen food comes in plastic containers).
13. Use matches instead of disposable plastic lighters or invest in a refillable metal lighter.
14. Use biodegradable diapers and sanitary napkins.
15. Choose herbal, chemical-free soaps, detergents and toothpastes.
16. Use a ceramic or glass mug at work instead of having tea, coffee and water in disposables.
17. Replace sea salt with rock salt as sea salt may have microplastic remnants.
18. When consuming seafood, avoid the intestinal areas of fish before cooking. Reduce consumption of shellfish.
19. Use quality water filters to remove plastic particles from drinking water at home or office.
20. Discard all plastic containers at home ethically through green channels where plastic does not end up in the soil but is recycled.
(Tips from Amrutha Kshemkalyani, an Abu Dhabi-based sustainability expert).