Tiny killers that may end life on earth

LOOMING DANGER: Plastic pollution is threatening our existence, scientists believe
Picture: ISTOCK

Study of salt shows growing plastic micro bomb threat polluting oceans and everything in them

The earth is under siege from a vast aquatic battalion of plastic “micro bombs” – and if we do not turn back the tide, they will wipe us out. That is the warning from Iranian Malaysia-based scientist Dr Ali Karami, who heads an international team investigating the threat posed by microplastics.

They are either tiny plastic beads which come from sources like cosmetic exfoliators, or bits of larger plastic waste pollution that have been fragmented by sunlight, wave action and time.

In the first study ever into the subject, the researchers focused on the level of microplastics contained in salt produced in eight different countries, including South Africa.

With the study completed, Karami responded on Friday from his office at Universite Putra Malaysia near the capital Kuala Lumpur to questions from The Herald.

The study focused on salt because of how widely it was consumed and because of its susceptibility to microplastics pollution, he said.

“Salts are produced by evaporating seawater in the saltpans and, as such, microplastics, which have been in the seawater, remain in the salt.”

He said that in line with the team’s general finding, microplastics in South African salts were not at a level where they posed an immediate health threat to consumers.

“However, we do believe that longterm consumption of multiple products contaminated with microplastics could be of concern.”

The study focused on salt because it is also widely found in other aquatic products including fish and shellfish.

The microplastics acted like sponges, absorbing contaminants from surrounding water and releasing them when they were ingested by animals or humans through the consumption of aquatic products, Karami said.

Moreover, as the marine plastic pollution load increased and the existing load disintegrated still further, the problem was getting steadily worse.

“Our planet is silently being conquered by these micro bombs. If microplastics are there, it means it is impossible to remove them since they are tiny and also numerous in number,” he said.

“I believe plastics could finally wipe out lives from our planet. They are the big bad wolf of the 21st century.”

Mass plastic production began in the 1950s, with plastic production currently 322 million tons. Five to 13 million tons of this ended up polluting oceans, rivers and lakes.

“Several studies have already shown the harmful impacts of microplastics on animals. In a similar way, they could find their way into our body through contaminated foods and cause adverse health consequences,” Karami said.

Researchers have already declared the presence of large amounts of microplastics in salt produced in China. Parallel to this finding, increased plastic production and pollution was exacerbating the situation.

“Despite this situation, no study has until now investigated this issue and microplastics analysis is still not part of food safety management systems,” he said.

This had to change with regard to all products coming from aquatic environments.

“Based on the results of this study we suggest analysing these products for any potential microplastic contamination before marketing them,” Karami said.

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