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My turn, Francis Koster and Jean Kadela: Plastics make their way into food

By Francis Koster and Jean Kadela

According to a 2018 report released by the National Ocean Service, a part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, about 300 million tons of plastic is produced globally each year. Only about 10% of that is recycled.

Of the plastic that is simply trashed, an estimated 8 million tons ends up in the sea each year. And it winds up in the flesh of the fish you eat.

Researchers at the National University of Ireland in Galway have been studying ocean fish in the North Atlantic to find out how much plastic is in their flesh. They discovered that 73% of 233 deep-sea fish contains microplastic, or small plastic pieces less than 5 millimeters long.

In addition to the decaying plastic trash floating in the oceans, the accumulation of plastic into the tasty salmon you just ate could also have started with tiny beads that were added to toothpaste, makeup and similar products until Congress outlawed adding plastic microbeads to such products in 2017.     

And while regulation outlawed microplastics in toiletry products, they can still be used elsewhere. During use, these products are washed down the drain, passing through local sewage systems — where they are not removed. 

Recently, a plastics researcher was taking a break and poured himself a cup of tea. He looked at the tea bag after taking it out of the cup and noticed that it was shiny, apparently made in part with plastic. He took the tea bag back to his lab, examined it under a microscope, tested it and his worst fears were confirmed — the plastic from the tea bag was melting into the tea, and he was drinking it.

Scientists trying to determine the health impact of all this plastic have a real challenge because most such medical studies compare two different populations — one with and one without whatever is being studied. In this case, the problem is so widespread around the world that they cannot find populations that do not already have plastics in their bodies.

The Pollution Detectives lends equipment at no charge to students and other concerned citizens to help “make the invisible visible.” Using our equipment, people can uncover lead in school drinking water, radon gas, mold and several types of indoor air pollution. We do not yet have a tool that will detect plastics in food or beverages, but we are actively hunting for one. Please reach out if you know of one and guide us.  

Francis Koster lives in Kannapolis and is the founder of the Pollution Detectives, thepollutiondetectives.org.

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