Should We Be Concerned About Microplastics in Our Seafood?
By now we are probably all aware that plastic pollution is an immense environmental concern. I feel like I am bombarded with articles claiming microplastics are everywhere on earth. If this is true, what does it mean for the environment and human health? Specifically, I was curious to know how microplastics in the ocean might affect humans who consume seafood. Growing up on the west coast I ate a lot of fish.
First, let’s define what microplastics are and how they are formed. Microplastics are defined by the UN Environment Programme as “tiny plastic particles up to 5mm in diameter”. Microplastics can be created in a few different ways. Any plastic that ends up in the environment can slowly break down into increasingly smaller pieces, eventually becoming microplastic. Some plastics are small by design, like microbeads in facial cleansing products. Thankfully, the use of microbeads in products was banned in Canada in 2018. Microplastics can also come from clothing made from synthetic fibers. For example, nylon and polyester clothing slowly releases plastic fibers into the environment as they are worn and washed. These microplastics have been found in samples all over the world, including the water we drink and the air we breath. A study in 2015 found that up to 12.7 million tons of plastic enter the ocean from coastal cities every year.
Now that we know how microplastics get into the environment, let’s look at how microplastics affect marine life and potentially, our health. Animals will mistake microplastics for food and ingest it. Research labs in both the US and UK have yet to find a single sample of shrimp or mussels without microplastics in their digestive system. Not a single sample. This is especially concerning because we typically eat these whole. It is still unclear if microplastics are in the meat of the fish we eat. Multiple researchers in this article by Scientific America have confirmed that microplastics are negatively affecting marine life. Another concern is biomagnification. This is the process of a compound increasing its concentration in the tissue of organisms as it travels up the food chain. For example a single plankton will consume some microplastic then a fish will consume many plankton and a shark will consume many fish, therefore increasing the amount of microplastics ingested. It is still unclear how microplastic may be affecting humans. What is certain is that we are definitely ingesting microplastics from various sources, including seafood. More research needs to be done.
So what can we do about microplastics in the ocean? This feels like an overwhelming problem that we as individuals can not do much about. I certainly felt that way while researching for this article. But change is happening. Canada has proposed a plan to ban certain single use plastic items in 2021. While more needs to happen, this is a step in the right direction. Below I have listed some other ways to take action on microplastics:
- Educate yourself
- Reduce plastic use
- Buy less synthetic clothing
- Keep rooms ventilated and dust often
- Start conversations about it
- Demand action from governments
Microplastics and ocean health is a big concern. There is still so much we do not know about the effects of microplastics on the environment, seafood, and human health. We do know that there are ways we can take action to reduce plastic pollution. It can be as simple as reducing your own plastic use and starting a conversation with friends, or actively demanding change from our government. There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to microplastics but we know we need to prevent more from entering our environment. Reading the research around this topic has certainly re-lit my desire to reduce my own plastic use and start the conversation with friends and family.