Microplastics: The Next PFAS?
Regulations and lawsuits surrounding PFAS – “the forever chemical” – are only increasing. Companies like 3M and DuPont have settled PFAS lawsuits for billions of dollars, and new regulations and laws seek to restrict the release of PFAS into the soil and waterways. While much conversation is still swirling around PFAS, a new pollutant is coming over the hill: microplastics.
What Are Microplastics?
Microplastics are pieces of plastic so small they are imperceptible or nearly so to the human eye. They can be manufactured like that, such as abrasive beads in face wash, or from the breakdown of larger plastic over time. For instance, discarded polyester clothing or disposable water bottles can wear down due to weather. There they can enter the soil and water supply, from which they percolate into animals and humans. Microplastics have been found in our blood, and new studies seem to show that they can cross the blood-brain barrier. The effects of microplastics on humans aren’t fully understood yet. Microplastics in the intestines have been linked to inflammation, immune reactions, and cancers. If they can cross the blood-brain barrier, they could have similar effects on the brain. Some have even speculated about a link between microplastics and Alzheimer’s.
In contrast, PFAS are not plastics. PFAS stands for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances; they are lengths of carbon chained together. Each carbon atom is bonded to a fluorine atom; the whole chain can vary in length, from four carbon atoms to fourteen carbon atoms in length. Different lengths of PFAS molecules can have different effects. They are waterproof, stain-resistant, and thermally stable, making them perfect for a wide variety of products. PFAS is used in food packaging, non-stick cookware, cosmetics, and more. However, their stability means they never break down in the environment, thus the nickname of “forever chemical.”
Microplastic regulation is still in the infancy stage compared to PFAS regulation. The biggest law relating to microplastics is the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which bans microbeads (very small plastic balls that perform an exfoliating function) in cosmetics like face wash. In 2018, the House passed a microplastic reduction amendment in the Save Our Seas Act that supports NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) study and cleanup of plastics. It was signed on October 11, 2018.
The Future Of Microplastics
If microplastics follows the same trajectory as PFAS, more regulations and lawsuits are sure to follow, especially as the health risks become more well known. For instance, landfills and recycling plants could face fines for releasing plastics into the environment that can wear down to microplastic. Industry, especially plastic manufacturers and waste disposal companies, need to keep abreast of microplastics and their future impact on business practices and litigation.
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