from the world's big
When these particles are eaten by earthworms, the results are not good.
- New research from Anglia Ruskin University states that microplastics in soil are causing earthworms to lose weight.
- Soil affected by microplastics produces less crop yield due to less productive earthworms and lower pH levels.
- If this trend continues, our entire agricultural system could be compromised.
Microplastics are everywhere | Sarah Dudas | TEDxBinghamtonUniversity<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a0f0c0566b5d3f51fba4540d77bb3b5e"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/jjsrmFUmyh4?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>We often mistake broad names for processes as "extra." For example, dark matter, which represents 85 percent of all matter in the universe, is believed to non-baryonic, yet physicists recognize that it could be comprised of subatomic particles we haven't yet discovered. The universe isn't know for creating filler; usually, our own ignorance is the culprit.</p><p>"Dirt" and "soil," to non-farmers at least, are often treated as an earth layer; referencing it is often in the negative, as when a parent scolds a child for "playing in the dirt." But soil is a process, living and organic, dependent on decaying and dead matter constantly being churned through (by earthworms, for example) and recycled. </p><p>Soil is one of the major reasons that America has become a global power. Our fields supply an incredible amount of food for the planet. By contrast, China, with its billion-plus population to feed, struggles to produce adequate amounts of nutrition due to less fertile soil. This is, in fact, one of the undiscussed underpinnings of the current "trade war."</p><p>Damaged soil destroys not only ecosystems, but societies as well. When famers try to increase crop yield by introducing plastic mulches and irrigation, they're unknowingly polluting the soil with tons of microplastic particles. These particles are then ingested by earthworms (among other animals), causing them to lose weight.<span></span></p><p>The research team chose the most important grass grown in temperate regions; in grassland ecosystems ryegrass is abundant. A variety of ecosystems were used, some with added microplastics, one control without. Earthworms were most affected by HDPE microplastics, though any of the added particles made life worse for the worms.</p>
A view of the Schiavonea beach with microplastics, transported by the Ionian sea during the last sea storm.
Photo by Alfonso Di Vincenzo/KONTROLAB /LightRocket via Getty Images<p>Soil is generally low in nutrient value, meaning that worms have to eat and pass a lot of it for their existence. The team compares the results to aquatic environments, in which the digestive tracts of fish, like worms, are obstructed and worn away. The consumption of microplastic particles stunts their growth while compromising the survival of the organism.<br></p><p>Beyond worms, the particles (especially HDPE) decrease soil pH. This directly affects the diversity of organisms living there. As with the human microbiome, in which a diverse population of bacteria is healthiest, soil pays a steep price when diversity drops. </p><p>These particles don't remain in the soil; they end up, in some cases, on your plate. The team writes, </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"In agricultural settings, such effects may have implications for the production and quality of crop plants, by directly affecting plant development and altering the soil environment in which they are produced as well as having potential implications for human health through the accumulation of microplastics and harmful compounds in the tissues of plants."</p><p>All plastics are biodegradable. The problem is, some take weeks to mineralize while others hang around for millions of years. Until we implement broad solutions that implement a shelf life for plastics, these particles aren't going anywhere—except inside of our digestive tracts, eventually. As with worms, such news doesn't look good for the health of our species. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a>.</em></p>
Those silky tea bags might be releasing plastics into your digestive system.
- A new study at McGill University discovered that many tea bags leach billions of plastic particles into every cup.
- While the health dangers are unknown, past research uncovered serious problems in other mammals when consuming such particles.
- Scientists estimate that between five and 13 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into oceans every single year.
Some tea bags may shed billions of microplastics per cup<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="abee943b316d1d9067c002c91094e66f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/DVdrNCCGdK8?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>We know the damage that climate change is having on oceans — <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/25/climate/climate-change-oceans-united-nations.html" target="_blank">yet another report</a>, this one issued by the United Nations, highlights how dangerously close we are to destroying ecosystems that most biological life on the planet depends on. </p><p>Plastic is also a pervasive problem in our world: since the '50s, humans have produced over 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, with <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/19/climate/plastic-pollution-study-science-advances.html?module=inline" target="_blank">roughly half of it</a> being made over the last 15 years. Scientists <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768" target="_blank">estimate</a> that between five and 13 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into oceans every single year. Warming temperatures and plastic particles create a perfect storm in the destruction of entire ocean habitats. </p><p>That's not the only place plastics show up, the McGill team writes. Microplastics have been discovered in table salt, fish, and water — from taps, but even more so from plastic water bottles. They're also being used in facial scrubs and toothpaste, along with, of course, drinking straws. In cafés around Los Angeles, I constantly witness cold brew coffee being served in plastic cups with plastic lids, sipped through with plastic straws that are delivered wrapped in plastic. I'm sure this practice is not limited to this city. </p><p>As the comedian, George Carlin, <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7W33HRc1A6c" target="_blank">famously noted</a>, maybe the purpose of humans was to put plastic on the planet. Given the data, his hypothesis may turn out to be correct. </p><p>Back to the McGill study, researchers steeped empty plastic teabags in reverse osmosis water for five minutes at 95 degrees Celsius. They then scanned the water using electron microscopy, confirming particle composition using two other forms of spectroscopy. The four brands used were all sourced from grocery stores and coffee shops in Montreal.</p>
Photo by Zikri Maulana/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images<p>As of now, the health impact of consuming plastic particles is unknown in humans. Previous studies have confirmed environmental and health effects in populations of algae, zooplankton, fish, and mice. Numerous studies involving the mammalian gut (in rodents, rabbits, and dogs) show that plastic particles are translocated in the body once inside of the digestive tract. The team writes, </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Potential biological responses include genotoxicity, apoptosis, and necrosis, which could lead to tissue damage, fibrosis and carcinogenesis." </p><p>As Taylor Orci <a href="https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/04/are-tea-bags-turning-us-into-plastic/274482/" target="_blank">wrote</a> in <em>The Atlantic</em> in 2013, tea companies emphasize the quality of tea over the fact that you're drinking plastic. Best to disguise the fact that these particles are being leached into consumer's cups. That some companies advertise plastic-free teabags is telling of an industry-wide issue. </p><p>We'll need more research to uncover the actual health effects of drinking these particles — between 2013 and 2019, no one has measured the harm of these substances, making you wonder what the FDA and CDC are doing. Regardless, it's hard to square the benefits of green tea when you're enjoying it with a side of plastic.</p>
Image source: Nathalie Tufenkji et al. McGill University.<p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a>.</em></p>