All of this should be taken with a pinch of salt – this is preliminary research and there’s been no robust studies yet on the actual impact of microplastics in humans. Which brings us on to the second, more worrying, answer. We know far too little about the scale of this problem. As far as we know, microplastics are everywhere, but we don’t know how harmful they are to humans or the environment, which types may have the most significant impacts, and how to effectively mitigate those impacts.
We need to stop facing this microplastics dilemma blind and there are two steps we can take right now fix it.
The first is to improve the quality of our analysis, making it more robust, and moving towards standardised methods. Most current analyses don’t include a blank control – given what we know about the ubiquity of microplastics all around us, we can’t make reliable findings about microplastics without considering those already around us which are highly likely to contaminate any analysis. Blanks allow us to make allowances for this and have more confidence in the results when microplastics are then observed. The initial analyses of microplastic impact on humans also have a repeating flaw. When conducting experiments on microplastics in cells within tubes or petri dishes, many researchers have used a shape of microplastic that essentially looks like a tiny ball. The problem is that most microplastics we’ve found in humans and mussels are not perfect balls, they are more like shards, with irregular, worn shapes, which have a very different impact on cells. If you can’t visualise the difference, imagine swallowing a whole grape vs a piece of uncooked spaghetti.
The second step needs more than academics. We need policy makers, governments on board. We need to actively monitor and regulate the levels of microplastics in our air and water. This is already starting at other points around the globe. In California, the Water Board authorities that look after the water supply have started to use monitoring methods to look at the levels of microplastics in the water. The UK, by contrast, despite some recent, high profile, waterway contamination events, has made no such progress as yet.