How do microplastics end up in nature, what is the impact on our bodies, and above all, what can we ourselves do to avoid or limit the spread of microplastics in our environment? Following new European regulations, the FPS Public Health is launching an awareness campaign on microplastics in collaboration with cartoonist Kim Duchateau. Because microplastics are more than glitter.
With beautiful drawings and a knowing wink, Kim Duchateau shows that microplastics can be found in mussels, beer or water, and consequently in our faeces and even in the placenta. With the campaign, the FPS Public Health aims to raise awareness of the microplastics problem among the public and inform citizens about the action they themselves can take to protect the environment.
Kim Duchateau is a widely acclaimed Flemish cartoonist and illustrator. He has previously drawn comics and cartoons for numerous domestic and foreign newspapers and magazines, including De Morgen, De Standaard, Knack, NRC Handelsblad, Stripglossy, L'Echo des Savanes, De Zondag, VRT NWS and Bruzz. "As a child in the 1970s, I heard about how industry is destroying nature," he says. "I find it baffling that 50 years later, not much has changed. I can only hope that these drawings bring people a little closer to the truth."
Car tyres and fleece
Microplastics are plastic particles less than five millimetres in size created primarily by the slow disintegration of plastic (litter) waste. The second main source of microplastics are car tyres: during driving, braking and acceleration, small rubber particles are released, which first end up on the road and then in the soil or air, or wash away to the sea via the sewage system.
Synthetic textiles, such as acrylic, nylon and polyester (fleece), are also a source of microplastics. According to researchers, a total of more than sixty percent of our clothing is made of plastic. Per laundry load, we are said to discharge up to 9 million plastic microfibres into our waterways!
In addition, microplastics are also sometimes specially produced for certain specific applications. For instance, plastic granules for the production of plastics (pellets) are a major source of microplastics.
The recent update of European chemicals legislation REACH targets the latter group in particular. Microplastics are now banned in all applications where they are intentionally used or added to compounds, such as in glitter, toys and certain paints. Microbeads in scrubs are also banned henceforth. However, existing stocks may still be sold. A deferral is available for some applications. For instance, microplastics in certain personal care products, cosmetics and cleaning products will be gradually banned.
We eat, drink and breathe plastic
Microplastics have little or no biodegradability and inevitably end up in the environment, where they pose a threat to natural ecosystems. Small marine organisms such as fish, crayfish and shrimp may mistakenly perceive the plastic particles as food; they may become saturated with them and die from malnutrition. The particles may also themselves have negative effects in the intestinal tract or be absorbed by cells and thus enter other organs.
Through the food chain, the pieces of plastic then end up on our plates. Scientists have already discovered microplastics in mussels, oysters, beer, fruit, sea salt and tap water, among others. According to Dutch research, we ingest more than 300,000 microplastics annually through our food, drink and air.
So it is not surprising that plastic particles have recently been discovered in our lungs and faeces, in placentas, breast milk and even in our blood, where they can have direct and indirect harmful effects. After all, plastics often contain chemicals, such as stabilisers or flame retardants.
Current state of science
Commissioned by the FPS Public Health, Ghent University's Blue Growth Research Lab, under the guidance of professor Jana Asselman, produced a policy briefing paper providing an overview of the current scientific knowledge around microplastics and their potential impact on health. "Microplastics can cause toxic effects at the cellular level," says professor Jana Asselman. "We primarily see indications of oxidative stress, inflammatory responses and cell DNA damage." Yet the risks to human health from exposure to microplastics remain largely unknown. More research is needed to know whether the observed effects at the cellular level could also lead to a greater risk of diseases such as cancer or obesity - and to what extent.
What can you do yourself?
Kim Duchateau's drawings also provide tips on what you can do yourself to reduce the microplastics problem.
- Avoid plastic packing materials and use a reusable shopping bag, water bottle or lunch box.
- Adopt an eco-friendly driving style. The more aggressive you drive, the more fuel you consume and the more plastic particles end up in nature.
- Avoid toothpaste, cosmetics and other personal care products that contain microplastics.
- Opt for personal care and cleaning products with the EU Ecolabel, as these are sure to contain no microplastics.
- Do not wash synthetic clothes more often than necessary. Let your clothes blow dry in fresh air.
- Avoid synthetic clothing and opt for clothes made of natural materials such as linen, cotton or wool.
- Wash at a low temperature (30°). High temperatures damage some fabrics, releasing more microfibres.
See all cartoons on www.fedupwithmicroplastics.be.
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