Study: Microplastics Make Organic Pollutants Ten Times More Toxic

Artificial turf football field with ground tire rubber (GTR) used for cushioning (left). Microplastics from the same field, washed away by rain, found in nature close to a stream (right). (Soleincitta)

A new study by Tel Aviv University researchers found that in a marine environment, microplastics absorb and concentrate toxic organic substances and thus increase their toxicity by a factor of 10, which may lead to a severe impact on human health.

Microplastic is a general name for plastic materials that appear in a configuration of particles and microscopic fibers the size of tens of microns and up to a few millimeters. Microplastics are found almost everywhere: in wells, in soil, in food products, in water bottles, and even in glaciers at the North Pole.

The researchers explain that since plastic is not a natural material, it decomposes very slowly in nature, in a process that sometimes endures for centuries and, as part of this process, the same microplastics are formed. Throughout the process, the microplastic particles encounter environmental pollutants that attach to their surface, and as a pair, they may pose a threat to the health of the environment and to humans.

The study examined the entire process that the microplastic undergoes, from the interactions it has with environmental pollutants to the release of the pollutants and the creation of increased toxicity. The researchers found that adsorption of those organic pollutants to the microplastics increases toxicity by a factor of 10 and may also cause severe impact on humans who are exposed to contaminated food and drink.

Dr. Ines Zucker explains: “In this study we showed that even very low concentrations of environmental pollutants, which are non-toxic to humans, once adsorb to the microplastic result in significant increase in toxicity. This is because microplastics are a kind of ‘magnet’ for environmental pollutants, concentrating them on its surfaces, ‘ferrying’ them through our digestive tract, and releasing them in a concentrated form in certain areas – thus causing increased toxicity.”

Ph. D. student Andrey Eitan Rubin adds: “The amount of waste dumped into the ocean every year is enormous – the best known example is the plastic island in the Pacific Ocean, which has an area 80 times larger than the State of Israel. But this is not just a remote problem – our preliminary monitoring data show that Israel’s shores are among the most polluted with microplastic waste.”

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