What are they?
Plastic pieces less than 5 millimeters in size are commonly called microplastics. Microplastics are used in manufacturing, industry, and 3D printing. They are in consumer products such as synthetic clothing fabric, toothpaste, and skincare products. They are also formed when plastics break apart into tiny beads.
When microplastics wash down a drain, they are not filtered by wastewater treatment. They spread far across and throughout the ocean. Major sources of microplastics include:
- Agricultural runoff
- Cruise ships
- Ocean dumping
- The shipping and fishing industries
- Urban runoff
- Waste management
Microplastics are now found everywhere in the ocean and coastal waters, shorelines, ocean seabed, and sea surface.
Why are they a concern?
There is scientific uncertainty about microplastic issues. There is concern that microplastics could harm human health as they move through the marine food web. Microplastics both absorb and give off chemicals and harmful pollutants. Plastic’s ingredients or toxic chemicals absorbed by plastics may build up over time and stay in the environment. It is not known if you can be exposed to these pollutants by eating contaminated seafood.
Who is at risk?
You may be at risk if you work:
- At facilities making plastics or products made with plastics
- At waste management, wastewater treatment, or aquaculture facilities
- On a cruise ship
- In the shipping or fish farming industries
You may also be exposed if you:
- Use certain toothpaste or skincare products with plastic microbeads
- Visit shorelines
- Go in the ocean or coastal waters
What pollutants are of greatest concern?
Some of plastic’s ingredients or toxic chemicals absorbed by plastics are harmful, including:
Reduce your risk
- Do you use plastic bottles or containers?
- Minimize use of consumer products that might contain microplastics.
- Choose paper bags over plastic bags and glass products over plastic ones.
- Recycle plastics.
- Never throw plastic items in lakes, rivers, oceans, or other bodies of water.
- Great Pacific Garbage Patch
(National Geographic Society)
An encyclopedic entry on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex, a collection of marine debris or litter in the North Pacific Ocean, and efforts to clean it up.
- Toxicological Threats of Plastic
(Environmental Protection Agency)
Information on hazardous plastic pollution in the marine environment.
- What are microplastics?
(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Information and a short video on microplastics, which are small plastic pieces less than five millimeters, that can be harmful to ocean and aquatic life.
- New Link in the Food Chain? Marine Plastic Pollution and Seafood Safety
(National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences)
Information about plastic pollution in the ocean, and the effects from associated toxic exposure on the health of people who eat seafood, from a federal institute that investigates the interplay between environmental exposures, human biology, genetics, and common diseases to help prevent disease and improve human health.