This article is for you
By Mark O'Connell
Most recently, Mr. O'Connell has written 'Notes from An Apocalypse : A Personal Journey To The End Of The World And Back'.
April 20, 2023
Plastic is in our blood, lungs, and bowels. It's not visible, nor can we feel it. The air we breathe, the water we consume and the food that we eat are all contaminated. It's not yet clear what it is doing to us because we are only now becoming aware of its existence. However, since then, we have experienced a profound and diverse cultural anxiety.
It might be nothing. This jumble -- pieces of water bottles and tires, polystyrene packaging or microbeads in cosmetics -- may be washing through our bodies without causing any harm. Even if this were true, the psychological impact would remain of knowing that plastic is in our bodies. This knowledge is apocalyptic in a vague sense; it feels like a divine revenge, but done slyly, and with poetic appropriateness. This may have been our destiny all along - to finally commune with our garbage.
When we talk about this disturbing presence in our bodies, we call it microplastics. This is a very broad category that includes any plastic piece less than 5 millimeters in length, or about a fifth inch. Many of these tiny pieces are easily visible with the naked eye. In the photos used to illustrate articles about the subject, you may have seen a multitude on tiny shards of many colors on the fingertip or on a spoon. There is also the invisible stuff, the so-called "nano-plastics", which are only a fraction of the size microplastics. They are able to cross the membranes that separate cells, and they have been found to accumulate in fish brains.
Since a long time, we have known that microplastics harm fish. In a 2018 study, fish exposed to microplastics had lower levels of growth, reproduction, and offspring. Even when the parents were not exposed, the offspring also had fewer children, suggesting the contamination persists throughout the generations. Another study at the James Cook University, Australia, in 2020 demonstrated that microplastics change fish behavior. Higher levels of exposure result in fish taking greater risks, and as a result, they die younger.
The Journal of Hazardous Materials released a study last month that examined the effects of plastic consumption by seabirds. Researchers have found evidence for a new fibrotic condition caused by plastics, which they refer to as plasticosis. The researchers found that the scarring of the intestinal tract from ingestion caused by plastics made the birds more susceptible to parasites and infection. It also affected their ability to digest and absorb vitamins.
This information is not about the wellbeing of seabirds or fish. If we, by which I refer to human civilization, cared about the welfare of fish and seabirds we wouldn't, in the beginning, be dumping 11 million metric tonnes of plastic into oceans each year. It's unsettling to think that the same processes could be taking place in our bodies. Microplastics may be reducing our lifespan and making us less fertile. The authors of the plasticosis report state that their research "raises concern for other species affected by plastic ingestion" -- which includes us.
We cannot escape the trash, just as the fish have to swim through it. We can't call the microplastics crisis a crisis at this time because we don't yet know the extent of its impact. But it is a disturbing fact that it affects everyone. No matter where you live or who you are, you will be exposed to microplastics. Even if you live in a remote compound, safe from rising sea levels and forest fires, microplastics can still be found in rain. Scientists found microplastics in the Mariana Trench and near Everest's summit, which is 36,000 feet beneath the surface of Pacific.
Most of the changes that we make in order to protect ourselves against microplastics are cosmetic. If you stop giving your child water in plastic cups, you might feel that you are doing something to reduce her exposure. But, when you think about the PVC pipes it had to travel through before reaching her, you realize how little you have actually done.
Researchers in Italy found microplastics in the milk of 34 new mothers who were healthy in a study last year. This is a cruel irony given that breast milk is associated with purity and nature, and new parents are worried about heating formula bottles in plastic. The research was conducted in response to the 2020 revelation that microplastics were found in placentas. It has become almost a definition: to be human, you must contain plastic.
To consider this reality, we can glimpse the broader truth of our civilization and our way-of-life poisoning us. In dumping the plastic waste from our purchases into the ocean, and in letting our consumer desires be discarded carelessly, there is a strange psychic reasoning at play. We have engaged in a kind of repression by dumping the evidence. As Freud argued, elements of our experience we repress - memories, impressions and fantasies - remain "virtually eternal; they act as if they were just happening." The psychic material that was 'immortal by time' would return and poison our lives.
What is happening with microplastics then? Plastic is virtually immortal, and that's the whole point. Since its introduction into mass-produced products between the First and Second World Wars its success has been linked to its ease of creation and its durability. Its greatest asset is also its biggest problem. We continue to produce more plastic, decade after decade, year after year. Take a look at this: more than half the plastic produced since mass production began has been made since 2000. It won't disappear by itself, even if we throw it out or fool ourselves that we are'recycling it'. It will return in our food and water. It will haunt the breast milk that babies drink from their mothers. It remains unalterable, like a repressed memories.
In the 1950s when mass-produced plastics were becoming the norm in Western culture, Roland Barthes predicted that this new'magical stuff' would change our relationship with nature. He wrote that 'the hierarchy of materials' was abolished, as a single substance replaced them all. The whole world could be plasticized and even the life itself, since they were beginning to manufacture plastic aortas.
Barthes's words are a reminder to pay attention to the world around us. While I type this, my fingers are pressing on the plastic keyboard of my laptop. The seat I am sitting on is cushioned in some sort of faux-leather effect polymer. Even the ambient music that I listen to while I write is being sent directly to my cochleas via plastic Bluetooth earphones. This may not seem like a major source of microplastics. You and I could end up consuming these tiny fragments of plastic in water some time after their useful life is over. Paint polymers are the biggest contributors to these particles in the ocean. On land, tiny plastic fibers, such as those found on carpets and clothes, and dust from tires are also major contributors.
A study by the World Wide Fund for Nature in 2019 found that an average person could be consuming up to five grams of plastic per week - the equivalent of a credit card, according to the report's writers. It was a vague statement; if the average person is consuming as much plastic per week as a credit card (or more), we can assume we are consuming less. The report was widely reported in the media and its shocking claims captured the public's imagination. Credit cards were chosen as the image. The idea that we are poisoning ourselves by our consumerism and eating our purchasing power is a surrealist notion that burrows deep into our unconscious. I imagine myself adding my Visa card to a fruit smoothie in a blender.
David Cronenberg’s latest film, Crimes of the Future, opens with an astonishing scene of a young boy eating a plastic wastepaper bin like an Easter Egg. The premise of the film, or at least a part of it is that some humans have evolved to be able to consume and absorb nutrition from toxic substances and plastic. One character says, 'It is time that human evolution syncs with human technology.' We've got feed on our industrial waste. It's our destiny.
The plot device may be grotesque, but it is also perversely hopeful: Our best chance might be an evolution leap that lets us live in the mess that we have created. It's optimistic, but perhaps only in the same way as Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal". Cronenberg expressed concern in interviews conducted around the release of the film about the news that microplastics were found in the bloodstreams of humans: "Maybe 80 per cent of the population has microplastics within their flesh," he stated in an interview. Our bodies are now different from any time in human history. This will not go away.
As a parent I'm torn between wanting to protect my children against microplastics, along with everything else I want to protect them from, and feeling that it might be futile. Google revealed that this anxiety is becoming more common among parents and has been the subject of an increasing amount of online content. In an article on protecting children from microplastics I read that it was best to avoid snuggling soft toys into the bed. Instead, these unexpectedly menacing creatures should be stored safely in a toy box, not left around the room. In the same article, an environmental scientist also advises us not to instill fear in children. While I'd like to reduce ambient risks to my child's health as much as possible, I don't want to be a parent who keeps their soft toys in a safe chest when they're not being used.
Although concern over microplastics is compatible with larger discourses on environmentalism and anticonsumerism it doesn't only interest lefty liberal types. Joe Rogan has been speaking about this topic for years. He is perhaps the most prominent meathead male in our culture. Rogan, who hosts a podcast, expressed his concern in an episode last year about the alarming effects of phthalates (a chemical used to enhance the durability of plastics) on human bloodstreams. He said that babies were born with smaller "taints." He clarified that the taint was the distance between a man's penis, and his anus.
Penises and testicles shrank at an alarming pace, as did the taints on infants. He said that this was a wild situation, because it literally changed the hormone profile and reproductive system of humans, and made us weaker and less masculine. One guest said that living in modern times meant that we were exposed to chemicals in an unprecedented way. However, this also meant that we lived longer. Rogan replied, "Well, you do live like a bitch." The demographic effects of declining birthrates is a concern for conservatives, just as climate change and air pollution are traditional concerns for the left. Microplastics can cover any apocalyptic scenario.
The presence of microplastics in our culture is partly due to the fact that we do not know what pathology means when it comes to the increasing amount of plastic in our lives. This ambiguity allows for all sorts of cultural and personal malaises to be attributed to this new knowledge about ourselves. It has an oddly allegorical resonance. We feel our spirits being corroded by the constant consumption of the techno-capitalist's trash -- the endless stream of brainless TikToks, the Instagram influencers who point at text boxes and dance, the proliferation of A.I. generated junk content. Our faith in the concept of the future is evaporating at a rate similar to that of polar ice cap melting. The idea that tiny bits of trash could cross the blood-brain barriers is a timely and apt entry in the annals apocalyptic imagination.
The aura of scientific uncertainty that surrounds this subject -- perhaps it is doing unimaginable harm to our bodies and brains; or maybe it is fine -- gives it a somewhat hysterical tone. Plastics have no known effects on us. We can attribute any number of ailments to them. Perhaps microplastics are making you feel depressed. You may have a constant head cold since Christmas because of microplastics. Microplastics may be preventing you and your partner conceiving or making you laziness and forgetfulness. Perhaps microplastics caused cancer in your stomach or brain.
I am susceptible to it myself. I was diagnosed a few years ago with I.B.D, an autoimmune chronic condition. It was a sudden, unrelated illness. It is not life-threatening but it can make me so ill that I am unable to work. I've also been too tired to get up from the couch at night. Every eight weeks I go to the hospital infusion suite where I'm hooked up to a fluid solution of monoclonal antibodies. These bags are made of some type of polyethylene. You can imagine that I would say this with a shrug and a lot of irony.
A study published in 2021 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology showed that people with I.B.D. who were otherwise healthy had significantly higher levels in their stool samples than those who did not have I.B.D.