Does size determine the danger quotient? Or are the biggest threats to humanity actually confined within the smallest scales known? Microbeads; the indestructible millimetre-sized solid plastic particles have escalated to become one of the biggest reasons that thwart the very existence of humanity and our planet. And why exactly do those seemingly harmless particles pose such a threat? Let’s dive into the inner details and unravel the destruction we are bringing upon ourselves with our own usage of plastics in almost everything in our lives.
So what is a microbead? Microbeads are usually manufactured from common plastic materials like polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene. Sized between few micrometers and a few millimetres, these tiny solid particles are added as exfoliating agents in most personal care and cosmetic products like toothpastes, soap, facial care agents and more. Yes! It’s quite striking! All these products that we use without any second thoughts and on a daily basis have tiny devils of plastic–one of the most harmful substances known for the human body and nature.
How exactly hazardous are these? Obviously indestructibility owing to its ‘plastic’ constituents is a big factor. But, the real disadvantage of these tiny, spherical microbeads stems from the very story of its creation; or more precisely from the trait that was once thought to be the particles’ biggest harpoon in advancing scientific research. In the year 1976, microbeads were invented by John Ugelstead and it was perceived to be a scientific marvel. The equal-sized, spherical polystyrene beads could reach the most remote places possible where scientific instruments could not. As a result, the particles became a cornerstone for cancer, HIV, microscopy, and a plethora of other cutting-edge biomedical and health science researches. Owing to this amazing credibility, microbeads readily became a centre of attraction in manufacturing of various cosmetic and personal care products. This is exactly where it backfired. The insoluble, cosmetic microbeads are washed down the drain as we apply those products and enter the central sewage treatment plants. Inefficient waste management systems are unable to filter out the tiny microbeads and they end up directly into the ocean. Mistaking them for plankton, the backbone of the marine foodchain, aquatic species consume the microbeads which results in irreversible behavioural and biological changes. As they remain indigested and are indestructible, the beads end up entering our own body as we consume marine food. Also known for its notorious capabilities of absorbing, releasing toxins and organic pollutants, the microbeads become a potential threat for cancer, disruption of body organs, birth defects, and other numerous biological malfunctions. Considering the fact that our oceans already have trillions of tons of microplastics and microbeads and is predicted to outweigh the entire marine population weight by 2050, these particles could well be a ticking time-bomb for the doom of humanity and global life.
What’s the way out? Honestly, the only way out is a complete ban on the manufacturing, usage, and application of microbeads everywhere or at least for cosmetic applications. Though the particles might seem significant from the perspective of scientific research, its disadvantages outweigh its pros by a gargantuan scale. Countries like Canada, UK, USA, New Zealand, France, Ireland, Italy, and Netherlands have already stepped up to ban microbeads. But this is only a start. The situation calls for awareness and action at a more global scale if humanity is to really overcome one of the biggest potential threats for the existence of complex biological life on this planet.
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