Plastic: The Unseen Truth - Tonight

A recent report claims, without knowing it, we may be ingesting 2,000 tiny pieces of plastic every week - and could have serious health implications.

It is estimated that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the early 1950s and around 60% of that plastic has ended up in either a landfill or the natural environment. However, there is a hidden issue: microplastics. A recent report from WWF claims that we ingest a coat hanger worth of plastic a month, and that could have serious health implications.

Environmental journalist Lucy Siegle investigates if plastics and the additives used to make them have an impact on our health. Firstly Lucy provides a urine sample to Annelies Den Boer, Chairperson of the Tegengif Foundation to discover if she has any of the potentially harmful chemicals in her body.

The results were shocking.

"We have found bisphenol A... and several phthalates which are chemicals that are on substances of very high concern list of European chemicals agency. We’re concerned about these toxic chemicals because they are known to affect fertility."

Annelies den Boer, Chairperson of the Tegengif Foundation

Phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) chemicals can be found in all sorts of everyday items such as cosmetics, personal care products like shampoo bottles, vinyl flooring and even food packaging. Annalise explained to Lucy that we are all exposed to these potentially harmful chemicals every day.

We contacted the Food Standards Agency who are responsible for monitoring the possible dangers of BPA, Phthalates and microplastics in food and Public Health England they told the programme:

“Based on current information, it is unlikely that the presence of microplastic particles in air or certain types of food would cause harm to consumers. Strict regulations are already in place for plastics which can be used in contact with food.”

Food Standards Agency

The harm caused to sea life because of single-use plastics ending up clogging the oceans is well documented. But what about the unseen microplastics? A team from the Department of Geography at The University of Manchester has been studying the main supplier of microplastics in the oceans and found river systems are one of the main vectors for seafood contamination. It is commonly known that rivers in southeast Asia are heavily polluted with microplastics but, the River Tame showed surprising results.

Professor Jamie Woodward of the University of Manchester has been researching microplastics and their presence in our waterways.

"The river Tame is the most contaminated river system, in the world, in terms of its microplastics. We've got really good evidence to show that many of these river systems, have been quite heavily contaminated with microplastics for many many decades."

Professor Jamie Woodward, Department of Geography, The University of Manchester

Understanding how plastic might affect us all is a new science, in Amsterdam, a group of scientists shared their research results so far at the first world summit in Amsterdam on Plastics and the links with our health.

"We've been looking at what the effect is of microplastics on immune cells, and we see that under certain circumstances, the bigger microplastics cause faster cell death of the immune cells."

Dr Nienke Vrisekoop, University Medical Center Utrecht
A microscopic video shows how our immune cells, depicted in grey, are engulfed by microplastics, visualised in green.

These tests could show that microplastics may be harmful to our immune cells, but more research is needed to understand if what happens in a culture dish, happens in a living human being.

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