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What are Microplastics?

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 removed by wastewater treatment and eventually create problems in the environment. They spread far across and throughout the ocean. Major sources of microplastics include:

Microplastics are now found everywhere in the ocean and coastal waters, shorelines, ocean seabed, and sea surface.

See also: Bisphenol A (BPA)

Why are Microplastics a concern?

There is scientific uncertainty about the hazards of microplastic issues. There is concern that microplastics could have adverse health effects on humans 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 with Microplastics?

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 to help prevent introducing more microplastics in the environment.
  • Never throw plastic items in lakes, rivers, oceans, or other bodies of water.

Additional Resources

  • 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, including microplastics, 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 and the dangers of microplastics in water.
  • What are microplastics?
    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
    Information and a short video on what are microplastics and how they can be dangerous 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 health effects from associated toxic exposure to 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.
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