Tiny bits of plastic pose big threat

Tiny bits of plastic pose big threat
Microplastics often come from plastic debris that is slowly worn down and degraded, breaking up into ever-smaller fragments. Marine animals can ingest microplastics by accident

Tiny, innocuous-looking nibs of plastic, used in facial scrubs, soaps, toothpaste and cosmetics, are posing a big environmental threat.

These minute plastic microbeads, as they are known, have surfaced everywhere: from Singapore's coastal waters to pristine- looking Swiss lakes and even Arctic sea ice, and can carry poisons that get into the food chain.

The plastic pollution is washed down the drain, evades filters in wastewater treatment plants and flows into waterways, warned New York Attorney-General Eric Schneiderman recently.

"They serve as little toxin sponges. They soak up toxins and when the fish eat them, the toxins stay in the fish.

These can cause cancer, these can cause birth defects for folks who eat that fish.

These are a serious, serious health threat that we need to stop," said Mr Schneiderman, who is pushing for a Microbead-Free Waters Act in New York State.

Although microbeads have been a common ingredient in consumer products for years, their potentially disastrous impact on oceans and waterbodies has come under scrutiny only relatively recently.

Overseas, environmentalists have had some success in pushing for new laws to guard against the hidden menace.

Earlier this month, Illinois became the first American state to ban the use of microbeads in the manufacture and sale of personal care products; its legislation will take effect in 2017. Other US states, as well as some countries in Europe such as the Netherlands, are inching towards similar bans.

National University of Singapore civil and environmental engineering researcher Jeffrey Obbard, who has studied the presence of microplastics over the last decade or so, says tiny plastic fragments can now be found in mangrove sediments, beach sand, seawater and drainage canals all over Singapore.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines microplastics as plastics less than 5mm in diameter, although many are much tinier.

Microbeads come under this group.

Face scrubs and products used for air-blasting are the primary source of the tiny beads, while other microplastics often come from plastic debris that is slowly worn down and degraded, breaking up into ever-smaller fragments.

Marine animals can ingest microplastics by accident, with repercussions up and down the food chain.

Researchers from the University of Exeter in England have found that marine lugworms - whose coiled castings can be seen in little piles on beaches at low tide - eat less when ocean sediments are highly polluted with microplastics.

Not only are the beads themselves harmful - causing physical blockage of or damage to feeding appendages and digestive tracts - but also their ability to absorb toxins poses an even greater threat.

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