The entire planet is now contaminated with it, from the top of Mount Everest to the deepest oceans, The Guardian noted last year. It was discovered in the water, in the air and in the soil: we are talking about microplastics. It is formed from the decomposition of plastics, which are not completely degraded in the environment due to their stability: over time, they break down into smaller and smaller particles. If these are smaller than 5 millimeters, they are referred to as microplastics.
Such particles also get into living beings from the environment: plants, animals and humans. According to a study by the University of Victoria, people ingest around 200,000 microplastic particles through water and food every year. According to researchers at the University of Newcastle in Australia, it can be an average of around 2,000 per week through nutrition alone . That is about 5 grams of plastic, which corresponds to the weight of a credit card. However, it should be noted that the study commissioned by the WWF was not peer-reviewed.
In any case, the smaller the particles, the easier they can be distributed. They have already been detected in the faeces of infants and adults, in human blood and in human organs . And in the organs, according to scientists from Saarland University, they can mechanically destabilize the cell membranes , as reported by research and knowledge .
At the end of 2021, South Korean scientists found evidence that microplastics can penetrate the human blood-brain barrier . They first noticed this in mice that were given plastic particles orally. The consequence: the particles smaller than 2 microns reached the brain. They then determined in cultures that the particles also accumulate in human cells. According to the researchers, the microplastics also trigger inflammation. They have observed "changes in cell morphology, immune response and cell death".
As mentioned, some of the microplastics get into our bodies through food. And it gets there mainly via the arable land. As reported by the German Nature Conservation Union (NABU) , microplastics cannot be retrieved from the ground and therefore continue to accumulate there. It changes the soil structure and poses a potential threat to soil organisms. It is therefore "important, in accordance with the precautionary principle, to prevent the entry of plastic into the soil as far as possible".
The Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (BAFU) writes that "it can be assumed that microplastics can be found in almost all Swiss soil".
Given this serious state of affairs, one would assume that the authorities would keep an eye on the concentration of such particles in the soil. After all, we're so concerned about our health that they've spent billions of tax dollars testing and vaccinating everyone for a virus. Fundamental rights have even been restricted to protect us from this.
Billions more are being spent to reduce man-made CO2 emissions. And this, although it has not been proven that this can have a significant influence on the temperature of the earth's atmosphere.
By contrast, the problem of microplastics – where human influence is beyond question – receives far less attention and does not receive nearly as much financial resources.
For example, the FOEN has not yet examined any arable land for microplastic contamination, as the authority informed the consumer magazine K-Tipp and confirmed to Transition News .
Things are no better in Germany. The Federal Agency for Agriculture and Food (BLE) explains : The maritime sector has already been researched quite well "in terms of plastic", but there are still "knowledge gaps" when it comes to soil. There are some studies, but these are difficult to compare due to "methodological and experimental differences". The BLE mentions the Thünen Institute for Agricultural Technology, according to which there has so far been a lack of suitable and uniform analysis methods to be able to adequately measure the amounts of plastic particles in soil. The authority further:
"Therefore, there are still no reliable figures that express how much plastic has actually accumulated in our (arable) soil."
According to the FOEN Transition News , there are also no standardized methods for the preparation and analysis of microplastics in environmental samples in Switzerland . The authority therefore finances the establishment of such a method. Only then could reliable analyzes be carried out. On its website, the FOEN admits that there is a "need for research into plastics in the environment".
In Switzerland, it was therefore up to the K-Tipp to investigate the contamination of agricultural soil with microplastics. It turned out that all ten samples from Swiss fields sent to a specialized laboratory contained microplastics. This included soil from arable land near large settlement areas as well as soil from arable land that is far away from residential areas. The two most contaminated samples came from the cantons of Thurgau and Aargau, where more than 100,000 and 50,000 microplastic particles were found in one kilogram of soil.
According to K-Tipp , these are very high values . The magazine quotes the Austrian Federal Environment Agency, according to which the previous maximum was 18,760 plastic particles per kilo of arable land. It is significant that more than 10,000 microplastic particles were found in five of the K-Tipp samples. All samples contained polyethylene.
Some of these particles are caused by agriculture itself, for example through the use of plastics for silo bales, tunnel foils and bird protection nets. According to calculations by the federal research institute Agroscope, around 16,000 tons of plastic material are used in Swiss fields every year. They emit around 160 tons of plastic particles that remain in the ground.
According to the FOEN, the most important sources of plastics in the soil are: tire abrasion, litter and contamination of green waste collection by plastics. The authority mentions a model calculation of the seven most commonly used types of plastic in Switzerland, according to which the annual input of microplastics on and into the soil is estimated at around 600 tons . In addition, according to a follow-up study, around 6,000 tons of tire abrasion would end up on the road embankment and 300 tons on the other soil.
In a 2018 study , the German Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental Technology identified the three most important sources of microplastics: abrasion from vehicle tires, abrasion from plastic additives in asphalt and dust from waste disposal.
So it is surprising that the measures taken by the authorities so far have focused primarily on littering. The FOEN mentions, for example, "a well-functioning waste management system" and "the cleaning measures in public spaces".
Even more surprising and worrying is that for some sources of microplastics there are almost no concrete measures planned. The FOEN , for example, only lists a few “possible measures to reduce plastic emissions”, which are also particularly aimed at personal responsibility.
As far as the plastic used by agriculture itself is concerned, the FOEN proposes not plowing under agricultural films and promoting film recycling. The authority also warns to "be careful with supposedly degradable agricultural films". With regard to tire wear, on the other hand, the FOEN recommends, among other things, low-abrasion and narrow tyres, light cars, correctly set tire pressure and a "steady driving style (avoid stop-and-go)".
According to the K-Tipp , the authority only wants to take action when the EU decides on definitive restrictions on microplastics. The magazine comments:
"So it may be years before measures are taken to prevent soil and water contamination by microplastics."
In this regard, the FOEN reported to Transition News that in August 2022 the European Commission published “a draft regulation for far-reaching restrictions on microplastics in products (e.g. fertilizers coated with polymers that release nutrients in doses)”. In order to ensure the same level of protection for human health and the environment in Switzerland, the FOEN is examining whether the restrictions planned in the EU should be incorporated into Swiss chemicals legislation. The FOEN further:
"As soon as the EU has decided on a definitive regulation, the FOEN will prepare a corresponding amendment to the Chemicals Risk Reduction Ordinance (ChemRRV)."
Transition News also wanted to know from the FOEN what the Swiss authorities are doing to investigate the health effects of microplastics on humans and animals. In its response, the authority refers to the "Plastics in the Environment" report published by the Federal Council last September , which also addresses the effects of microplastics on humans and animals.
The report, which appeared in response to four National Council postulates, states that most plastics are biologically inert materials. According to studies, however, certain additives, monomers and oligomers could cause toxic effects such as inflammatory reactions. The Federal Council further:
“However, it is also important to note that plastics, like many other substances, have negative effects on people if a certain dose is exceeded over a longer period of time - especially if the substances cannot be broken down and accumulate. A health hazard may also be related to increased exposure to environmental pollutants in general, including microplastics.”
The Federal Council admits in the report that knowledge about the effects of exposure to plastics on human health is "still limited". This leads to high uncertainties regarding the risk assessment. There is a great need for research in order to "better understand the uptake and transfer processes and the effects of long-term exposure to plastics on humans". The report draws attention to five major EU research projects launched in 2021 investigating the impact of microplastics on human health.
In relation to Transition News , the FOEN also mentions a statement by the Federal Council from August 2022, which was given in response to an interpellation. It confirms that the results of a Dutch study suggest that:
"..human exposure to plastic particles leads to absorption of the particles into the bloodstream and that their elimination from the blood via bile, kidneys or transfer to other organs may be slower than their uptake into the blood."
The Federal Council also states that "an overarching assessment of whether and, if so, which microplastics are to be classified as harmful to human health" is not yet possible on the basis of the current state of knowledge.
The federal offices concerned would monitor the international development of relevant research and specifically fund research projects. In addition, a Swiss health study is being prepared, which will also include measurements of chemicals in human samples. These should include analyzes of microplastics, provided this is "methodologically feasible".
So it's clear: Something is happening, but in the foreseeable future we won't have to do without the weekly credit card on our plates.