The use of tiny, plastic beads in cleansing products may have seemed like a genius idea, at first. What it has pioneered, however, is a whole new form of contamination called microplastic pollution.
Microplastics, as the name suggests, are small pieces of plastic which pollute the environment. They are less than 5mm in diameter and may be primary (a direct result of human activity, or secondary (the result of the breakdown of larger plastics).
Microplastics could be the previously mentioned “scrubbers” used in cosmetics, microplastics manufactured in air blasting technology, which often become contaminated with heavy metals, synthetic fibres like polyester, nylon and acrylics, car and truck tires, sewage treatment plants and from other manufactured goods.
A study published just last week discovered an interesting source of microplastic pollution – human contact lenses. These tiny pieces of plastic are carelessly discarded after use, and, being non-biodegradable, eventually, find their way into the sea. They get degraded into minuscule plastic beads and are ingested by marine animals.
The major destruction is heaped onto the marine waters, due to increased microplastic biomagnification. In recent months, this issue has only become far worse. A study conducted in the Manchester river in the UK showed that a whopping 40 billion particles of microplastic were flushed into the sea, after recent floods there. Which led the scientists to estimate the number of such particles in oceans the world over, and the number they came up with was 5 trillion!
Sea animals like whales, dolphins, crabs, seals and other fish eat the microplastics because of their small size and consequently, end up suffering for many months before eventually dying. Eating plastic also prevents these animals, including lugworms, from consuming their natural prey, leading to death by starvation. Large mammals like whales and sharks, too, by drinking tonnes of seawater, are taking in alarming quantities of toxic chemicals into their system.
Although it is not yet realised, microplastic pollution has an impact on humans, too. WHO announced a review of drinking water from plastic bottles after analysis of popular drinking water brands revealed more than 90% of them to contain tiny plastic particles. Surprisingly, tap water was also found to contain microplastics. In the new study, analysis of 259 bottles from 19 locations in nine countries across 11 different brands found an average of 325 plastic particles for every litre of water being sold.
The effect of microplastic consumption is virtually unknown, which makes the issue scarier. However, it has been acknowledged that the tiniest microparticles, which are about as wide as a human hair, can easily pass through the membranes of the gut and into the bloodstream.
The next time you come across facial cleansers containing microbeads, think twice before buying because, as has been proved time and again, it is the smallest objects which create the greatest damage.