Micro-Plastics and Human Health – Are we too late ?

Microplastics in drinking-water
Micro-Plastics and Human Health- Are we too late?

The World Health Organization(WHO) in 2019, issued a WHO tech report: “Micro-Plastics in Drinking-Water(WHO2019). (1)The report states that “micro-plastics are ubiquitous in the environment and have been detected in a broad range of concentrations in marine water, waste water, fresh water, food, air and drinking water, both bottled and tap.”They added that the data on drinking water has been limited until now because we didn’t have fully reliable methods or tools to sample and analyze “micro-plastics” in drinking water.

The WHO states that the potential hazards associated with micro-plastics are as follows:
1. Physical particles, visible and micro-plastics and nano-plastic particles
2. Chemicals and microbial pathogens carried by micro-plastics in drinking water as part of the Bio-films, and as of now, with limited data, present a low concern for human health.

According to the WHO, there is “no reliable information” suggesting that the physical hazards of ingesting or breathing in micro-plastics is a concern. In my opinion, that statement is misleading because for too many years there was no research looking for a concern. However, in the last 5 years, biological research has shined a light on the true effects of macro and micro-plastics on living organisms in the environment and this knowledge has shocked the world. As the technology for measuring the presence of micro-plastics has evolved so have the incentives to evaluate the effects of this man made chemical substance which is found throughout the planet. Plastic waste may be found to be more dangerous and hazardous then we ever imagined. The need to reduce or even eliminate man made plastics from the environment could have a colossal economical impact on the entire plastic industry.

Is mankind obligated to support and protect the plastic industries 60 year head start of promoting a product that pollutes the sea and the land with a substance that can exist for 400-1000 years? The re-cycling process of single use plastics, like beverage bottles and bags is an economic poison for the plastic bottle industry and I believe that they will not be easily moved without punitive government action and public activism to change their own buying habits.

Look at the history.“More than 480bn plastic drinking bottles were sold in 2016 across the world, up from about 300bn a decade ago. If placed end to end, they would extend more than halfway to the sun. By 2021 this will increase to 583.3bn. According to the most up-to-date estimates from Euromonitor International’s global packaging trends, there are four types of plastics, which account for the vast majority of food and drink containers. PET plastics (Polyethylene terephthalate),which is highly recyclable and is used as containers for soft drinks and water. High density Polystyrene is used for hard plastic containers of shampoos and cleaning supplies, and low density Polystyrene for thin-like plastic bags. Mixed Polystyrene is used for containers that are made up of a mixture of different types of plastics, for example cottage cheese containers. As the use of plastics soars across the globe, “efforts to collect and recycle the bottles to keep them from polluting the oceans, are failing to keep up”. (2)

Fewer than half of the bottles bought in 2016 were collected for recycling and just 7% of those collected were turned into new bottles. Instead most plastic bottles produced end up in landfills or in the ocean.

Between 5m and 13m tonnes of plastic leaks into the world’s oceans each year to be ingested by sea birds, fish and other organisms, and by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight then fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Let us look at Israel. We have wire cages visible on the streets throughout Israel filled with empty plastic drinking water bottles and other trash. But not all of the plastic drinking water bottles get deposited into those cages for recycling. In fact, the Haaretz newspaper, November 9, 2017 reported that the Environmental Affairs Ministry alleges that the ELA Recycling Corporation, jointly owned by five beverage companies, Central Bottling(coca cola) Jafora, Tabori, Tempo and Mei Eden, reported collections and recycling that did not meet their legal responsibility to collect at least 55% of all bottles that they sell and recycle 90% of what they collect. The State estimated that the beverage industry sold 738 million, 1.5 liter bottles or more. ELA Recycling reported 445 million containers were collected, 60% of what was sold. The State verified a different amount of 277 million containers collected, 37%, and 10.4% or 77 million containers were recycled. The penalties for their alleged violations was estimated to be 80 million shekels in one year. The facts are being litigated in the courts and a decision is expected to be made in late 2020. Throughout the world many more plastics end up in landfills, oceans, seas, and lakes and this environmental fact is only beginning to interest researchers to investigate the health impact of plastics on man and his environment. Israel needs committed citizens and government to change their past failures and to immediately impact the effects of plastic waste on the health and welfare of our country. This is a pollution crisis that may exceed air pollution.

Given the reports beginning in 2004 by Professor Richard Thompson OBE, U.K(Plymouth University) of micro-plastic pollution in the sea and recently his finding evidence of micro-plastics in the edible tissues of salt water commercial fish, there is now an urgent concern for human health and food safety. In addition the recent findings of micro-plastic in fresh water is very concerning because humans need fresh water for drinking and food production. Prof. Thompson describes plastics as having a short life in service and the potential for centuries of waste and litter on the land and in the sea. Our throwaway culture has for the last 60 years not weighed the benefits of using plastics with a critical eye for the serious consequences that are caused by their use. Better, paper bags than plastic bags. Better glass then plastic containers. Better,100% recycling of plastics then littering our land and water resources and now harming the health of our future generations of marine life and mankind. Most plastics, and especially bottles, are recyclable and have an intrinsic monetary value beyond a single purpose use. If we reduce the petrochemical plastic industries impact on the environment, we will conserve a non-renewable oil source and save generations of life on the planet from plastic toxicity.

A recent study in the Annuls of Internal Medicine, September 3, 2019, reported the results of volunteers maintaining a food diary, and then taking stool samples to check for the presence of micro-plastics . The results showed that micro-plastics were detected in human stool samples from various sources of their diet. We do not yet know, with certainty, the effects of short term or long term ingestion of micro-plastics on humans. However,we cannot simply ignore this fact and wait decades later to address the biological effects of micro-plastics in human beings as we did with tobacco smoking and lung cancer, and organic pesticides and herbicides on our food supply and animal life.

Major beverage companies produce the greatest numbers of plastic bottles. Coca-Cola produces more than 100bn throwaway plastic bottles every year – or 3,400 a second, according to analysis carried out by Greenpeace after the company refused to publicly disclose its global plastic usage. The top six drinks companies in the world use a combined average of just 6.6% of recycled plastic (Pet) in their products, according to Greenpeace. A third have no targets to increase their use of recycled plastic and none are aiming to use 100% across their global production. The British Plastics Federation (BPF), a plastics trade body, admitted that making bottles out of 100% recycled plastic(Rpet) used 75% less energy than creating virgin plastic bottles. Plastic drinking bottles could be made out of 100% recycled plastic. The beverage companies are reported to be against using RPet for cosmetic reasons because the bottles are not as shiny, and clear as virgin plastic.

Microscopic plastic beads are used by the cosmetic industry as an ingredient to exfoliate the skin. The plastic micro-plastic beads can contaminate the waste water and eventually find its way into the drinking water. The same occurs with the microfibers in the waste water after washing polyester clothing.

The real power in Israel to reverse this plastic environmental catastrophe are the people who buy the plastic beverage bottles and use single-use plastic grocery bags. Grocery stores also have a major responsibility to aid its customers in the pursuit of zero tolerance for plastic waste. Each grocery store shopper must be responsible to bring their own supply of empty, reusable, paper and plastic grocery bags as they enter the store for their shopping. No more plastic bag waste. Each paper bag that is re-used by the customer will receive a credit on their next grocery bill. All plastic bottles must carry a bottle tax of 5 shekels which is refundable at the grocery store. When plastic beverage bottles are worth money, you won’t find them on the beach or in the trash. This should reduce the environmental pollution from empty plastic beverage bottles and recycle 90%+ of the plastic bottle waste.

Don’t ignore the fact that the public’s drinking water in Israel is an excellent starting point to replace plastic bottled beverages. The technology to filter and remove residual chlorine, micro-plastics, bacteria, organic, and inorganic chemicals from tap water is available and the cost is compensated by the savings of not buying factory bottled drinking-water. An immediate public benefit is no plastic bottle waste and tap water from the public’s water supply used without paying a beverage bottling company for the same water that is a valuable natural resource of the country. The home filters for drinking-water range from carbon blocks, membranes (reverse osmosis) and ceramic filter material. They are all able to take the water from your tap and improve its taste, odor and levels of various unavoidable and avoidable contents that may be present in tap water after the public drinking water treatment process. I suggest that you review the pros and cons of these classes of filters before you buy one. (3)

The Government should make every effort to add heavy fines for the willful failure of beverage manufacturers, to collect and recycle 90% of their plastic bottles. There is no time to hesitate because plastic waste will survive all of us. Trees are a renewal resource to make paper whereas petroleum needed to manufacture plastics is not. The problem of plastic pollution began with us and it will end with us. Please do your part.

1. World Health Organization(WHO2019) Tech Report “Microplastics in drinking-water”
2 . https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/28/a-million-a-minute-worlds-plastic-bottle-binge-as-dangerous-as-climate-change
3. Blog Times of Israel, May 7, 2017, “The Challenges of Providing Safe, Healthy, Drinking Water from a Shrinking Natural Resource”by Nachum Jacobs,P.D.

About the Author
Nachum Jacobs operates a small business in Israel which imports drinking water treatment products from England. He has many experiences with the Standardization Institute of Israel, and the process of importing into Israel. He is 74 years old, and an Aleyah from the US in 2008. Nachum owned and operated a Pharmacy in the US for 30 years, and holds a Pharmacy degree from the University of Maryland. He manufactured nutritional products and has extensive knowledge in alternative medicines.