The spread of airborne plastics

University of Portsmouth researchers have produced the first UK study into airborne plastic food contamination.

The report was front page news of The Daily Mail.

The report, produced exclusively for The Daily Mail, found that supermarket food is widely contaminated with potentially dangerous particles.

It had been thought the risk was largely limited to eating fish from oceans polluted with plastic. But according to Dr Natalie Welden, who led the research, microplastics were now “part of the air we breathe”.

The study showed that:

  • Food from any open counters including delis, bakeries and market stalls is vulnerable to contamination;
  • Airborne particles were found on every sample of fish from eight major supermarkets;
  • A report from four parliamentary committees demanded action against ‘poisonous air’;
  • Leading microplastics experts said ‘we just don’t know’ how dangerous they may be.

For the study, researchers from the University’s Institute of Marine Sciences, analysed fresh fillets of cod and salmon from the open fish counters of Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons, Tesco and Waitrose in London. They also purchased packaged fillets from Lidl, Aldi and M&S, which do not have such counters.

One of the sub-samples contained particularly high levels of microplastic; when scaled up to the size of 240 gram fillet, this would equate to over 130 plastic pieces.

The particles were too large to have passed from the gut into the flesh of the fish. The Portsmouth researchers concluded instead that the plastics came from airborne contamination – something the supermarkets have no control over.

They said that while the oceans remained the overall ‘sink’ for microplastics, there might be even more of them in the air.

Dr Natalie Welden said the findings had major implications for any uncovered food.

“Having food exposed to particles in the air for an extended period will result in a higher amount of plastic.

“Organisms that are exposed to air and are either not cleaned or rinsed as part of the packing process are exposed. The pool of plastics that’s out there forming airborne particles is huge.

“It’s a symptom of endemic plastic use throughout our culture as a whole.”

Dr Welden said washing the fillets prior to cooking might help. But she added: “They will also be exposed to microplastics in the home.”

Food from any open counters is vulnerable to contamination.

The particles recovered from the fish fillets were between 0.25mm and 1mm long. They were mainly fibres from textiles used in clothing, carpets or furniture.

Dr Welden, who has studied microplastics for six years, added:  “I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re not building up in the air in the same way as in the oceans.

“They will be fragmenting and still not going away.

“We have no knowledge on what a healthy level of airborne microplastics contamination would be. Some of the stuff that we’re putting out there may have a detrimental effect.”

She compared airborne microplastics to the CFC carbons in fridges that caused the hole in the ozone layer.

“Originally nobody really cared until it was traced back to having a negative impact on human health and all of sudden everybody got really active”, she said.

Read the full article and details of the report here.

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