Pollutants that you cannot see

It's not only the plastic trash that we can see with our naked eyes that we should be concerned about. Microplastics that are not visible to our eyes are also harmful. — Photo: 123rf.com

IT’S not only the plastic trash that we can see with our naked eyes that we should be concerned about.

Microplastics are tiny plastic pieces that are smaller than 5mm in length, and are not visible to our eyes.

“It’s been established that such microplastics are now more commonly found in things we consume, including seafood.

“This is becoming a serious issue worldwide,” says Prof Dr P. Agamuthu, from the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development at Sunway University.

He says the source of microplastics can be from any type of plastic that breaks down or fragments from being exposed to sunlight or other elements.

“In landfills, microplastics in the leachate, or liquid, from waste in a landfill may flow into rivers and seas.

“It is later consumed by small sea animals like cockles and if we eat them, we would also consume the microplastics,” Prof Agamuthu explains.

He says studies have found that the microplastics tend to remain in the bodies of creatures like fish and are later passed to offspring through reproduction.

“But there has yet to be evidence that the same happens in humans,” he says.

Another form of polluting microplastics are microbeads, which are very tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic that are added to some beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes. These too end up in our oceans and there are movements advocating that people not use products containing microbeads.

He says there is a possibility that drinking water may also contain microplastics but this needs to be further investigated and proven.

Currently, Prof Agamuthu is part of an international team funded by Britain’s University of Exeter to study microplastics.

“The team consists of members from Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines who will look into their respective countries.

“For Malaysia, I am looking into mangrove areas here to check for the presence of microplastics that could potentially harm the ecosystem for sea animals like crabs and cockles,” he says of the three-year project covering areas in Port Dickson in Negri Sembilan and Kuala Selangor.

As for larger plastic waste, environmental groups say that such pollution will not only affect humans but threaten both land and aquatic animals.

Malaysian Nature Society president Dr Ahmad Ismail says some studies have shown that over 90% of chicks of seabirds have ingested plastic particles – “Some seabirds mistake it for food and feed their chicks with it,” he says.

“Some plastics contain toxic chemicals such as endocrine disruptors. These disruptors can cause toxicity or irregular physiological systems in animals.

Ahmad says reports have identified aquatic animals such as dolphins, turtles, crocodiles and seabirds as being threatened by plastic pollution.

“They mistake plastic for food. When they eat plastic, it will clog their digestive tracts, leading to death,” he explains.

Land animals such as monkeys, birds and squirrels are also commonly exposed to plastic waste. These animals usually search for food in garbage bins and could end up choking on or ingesting the plastic, which may poison them.

He stresses that the public must have some knowledge about why plastic waste needs to be managed well.

“Plastic on the ground will be blown by the wind or washed by rain into drains, leading to the river and finally to the sea,” says Ahmad, who is a Fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia.

Any interaction a species or ecosystem has with mismanaged or leaked plastic will definitely have negative consequences.

“We also know that our coastal communities are disproportionately impacted by plastic waste, which damages fish stocks that these communities depend on for both food and livelihoods,” says Dr Adrian Choo sustainable markets programme lead at WWF-Malaysia.

It doesn’t help that plastic can take hundreds of years to break down, and the time it takes to decompose is also dependent on the type of product.

“For example, a plastic bag takes 20 years to break down, 200 years for plastic straws, 450 years for plastic bottles and 500 years for plastic toothbrushes,” Choo says.

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