There is plastic in our bodies; it’s in our lungs and in our bowels and in the blood that pulses through us. We can’t see it, and we can’t feel it, but it is there. It is there in the water we drink and the food we eat, and even in the air that we breathe. We don’t know, yet, what it’s doing to us, because we have only quite recently become aware of its presence; but since we have learned of it, it has become a source of profound and multifarious cultural anxiety.
Maybe it’s nothing; maybe it’s fine. Maybe this jumble of fragments — bits of water bottles, tires, polystyrene packaging, microbeads from cosmetics — is washing through us and causing no particular harm. But even if that was true, there would still remain the psychological impact of the knowledge that there is plastic in our flesh. This knowledge registers, in some vague way, as apocalyptic; it has the feel of a backhanded divine vengeance, sly and poetically appropriate. Maybe this has been our fate all along, to achieve final communion with our own garbage.
The word we use, when we speak about this unsettling presence within us, is “microplastics.” It’s a broad category, accommodating any piece of plastic less than five millimeters, or about a fifth of an inch, in length. Much of this stuff, tiny though it is, is readily visible to the naked eye. You may have seen it in the photographs used to illustrate articles on the topic: a multitude of tiny, many-colored shards displayed on the tip of a finger, or a lurid little heap on a teaspoon. But there is also, more worryingly still, the stuff you can’t see: so-called nano-plastics, which are a tiny fraction of the size of microplastics. These are capable of crossing the membranes between cells and have been observed to accumulate in the brains of fish.
We have known for a while now that they are causing harm to fish. In a study published in 2018, fish exposed to microplastics were shown to have lower levels of growth and reproduction; their offspring, even when they were not themselves exposed, were observed as also having fewer young, suggesting that the contamination lingers through the generations. In 2020, another study, at James Cook University in Australia, demonstrated that microplastics alter the behavior of fish, with higher levels of exposure resulting in fish taking more risks and, as a consequence, dying younger. [Continue reading…]