Kota SrirajMicroplastics are harming our health in more ways than one ways. At a time when humanity is battling the COVID-19 pandemic, natural human immunity is essential and of incalculable importance. However studies have shown that microplastics undermine human immunity. The presence of hormone-disrupting Bisphenol-A in microplastics not only stymies growth and development, it plays havoc with our hormones and severely undermines the body’s natural immune system. Apart from this, there has been an exponential rise in health problems pertaining to gastro-intestinal tract. Research is increasingly showing that invisible microplastic particles and polymers in our immediate environment, such as drinking water and food, are emerging as a major cause for worsening human health.The problem is not new but the symptoms are exceedingly assuming new dimensions as newer human health and environmental problems are emerging. According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and the European Chemicals Agency’s classification, any plastic bit that is less than five millimetre in length conforms to the definition of a microplastic. Any ingestion of this directly exposes human organs to a variety of harmful chemicals and pesticides present in them that can cause adverse health conditions such as obesity, gastro problems, developmental issues and other body organ related damage. Microplastics that are less than 25 microns are able to enter the respiratory tract and those that are five micron in size are able to get lodged in lung tissue. This can cause serious health problems. Across the world, microplastics are now considered as the new atmospheric pollutant and the near invisibility of these fragments makes them even more harmful. One can judge this by the fact that at many locations across the world, the average microplastics and fibres in our ambient environment are less than 300 microns in size. The average human hair is of 50-70 microns in diameter, whereas the smallest particle a human eye can see is about 40 microns. This gives us a perspective regarding the pollutant and its size and how this creation of mankind is escaping all global efforts to rein it in.As we relentlessly create a ‘plastic planet’, the scale of its generation is growing by leaps and bounds. According to a study published in Science Advances, some 420 million tonnes of plastics were produced in 2015, which is up from just over two million tonnes in 1950. This 65-year period saw nearly six billion tonnes of plastic ending up either in a landfill or in the environment. The oceans, too, have not been spared with nearly 51 trillion microplastics floating in them today, according to a study published in research journal IOP Science. The conditions closer home are not encouraging as studies are showing how India’s coastlines are suffering from the impact of microplastics. In southern-most India, microplastics are emerging as a major pollutant and marine environment, especially along the Kanyakumari coast, is falling victim. These findings came to light in the recent study conducted by the Department of Remote Sensing, Bharathidasan University, Tamil Nadu. The study covered eight different sampling stations along the 71-kilometre- long coastline comprising both urbanised and non-urbanised natural beaches. The tourist beaches and fishing hotspots saw high incidence of microplastic concentration, thanks to human influence. This study gave baseline data that helped researchers understanding the occurrence and distribution of microplastics in near shore sediments.The role of microplastics can be curtailed through impactful Government regulations and policies. India has both but what is missing is the comprehensive and effective implementation of the same. Even today, at all urban centres, one can still see shoppers and business owners using plastic bags and covers. It is surprising how the Government is unable to come down heavily on the manufacturers of polythene bags and covers. Neither is the Government concerned about waste segregation so that plastic carry bags do not get mixed with recyclable waste. These conditions point to the apathy of Government towards this rising problem.
In order to flush the system of plastics, the Government must conduct an audit of how much demand exists for these products and identify the suppliers. Then, District Industries Centres (DIC) in areas where these manufacturers are located must ensure that notice is served for ending production. Later, the DIC, along with a financial institution and a technical expert, can work out an alternative and eco-friendly product portfolio for these businesses. The Government must address the concerns of the manufacturers regarding profitability and viability besides addressing technical hurdles. This alone will help prevent them from slipping back to producing plastic products.
(The writer is an environmental journalist)………………………
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