How does plastic in the ocean affect humans?

For many years now, we have been made aware of the affect pollution has had on marine life. Plastic has flooded the oceans, trapping fish in six-pack beer rings, poisoning turtles with plastic bags that mimic jellyfish and causing fish to ingest microplastics. The danger to marine ecosystems couldn’t be more clear, but does this affect us? In short, yes.

Contamination: Microplastics

Did you know that scientists have recently found microplastics in 114 marine species? And a third of these marine animals are regularly consumed by humans. During the manufacturing process of plastic, chemicals are added to increase its performance and are considered to be endocrine disruptors. These chemicals can have a significant effect on normal hormone function in adults as well as impairing children’s brain development.

A range of plastics are spread throughout the ocean on a daily basis from ships and platforms at sea but the majority is caused by litter that is blown into the sea or swept away on the shore. This plastic then breaks down into small fragments usually less than 5mm in length and are called microplastics. These microplastics unlike other eco-friendly materials won't biodegrade, instead, they remain in the ocean and are consumed by marine life. This is a direct link to how plastic enters the food chain and is being consumed by humans.

The danger to humans is evident with plastic containing so many toxic elements such as lead, cadmium, and mercury to name but a few. Each of these can be extremely dangerous to humans and carcinogenic with direct links to cancer, immune system issues, birth defects, and developmental issues in children.  

One of the most common toxic plastics that we most often hear about is BPA which is of great concern to human health as it is a chemical that interferes with human hormonal functions. As such, there has been a big push in recent years towards BPA free bottles and food containers as BPA are often used in the manufacturing of plastic bottles and food packaging. The polymer chains of BPA will over time begin to break down and start to enter the body when drinking water or in this case, eating marine life that has been exposed to these toxins.

Despite exhaustive research into studying the adverse effect on humans, so far, all that has been concluded is that although we know there is a danger, the extent and exact nature is impossible to determine. Plastic contamination is a global issue and therefore it is likely that there isn’t a single human that hasn’t been exposed. There are also so many variables to consider when exploring this issue from people’s dietary habits to their lifestyle and therefore determining the exact effect of plastic is made even more difficult. All that is clear is that the chemicals within these plastics and microplastics are not healthy for the human body and only the future will demonstrate what affect it will have.