Between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean each and every year. When exposed to the elements, larger pieces of waste plastic progressively deteriorate and break down into ever-tinier fragments, until they are finally reduced to the level of microplastic particles.
After that, these microplastics find their way into the food we consume, the water we drink, and even the air we breathe. And it turns out that in addition to wreaking havoc on human cells, microplastics provide a safe habitat for deadly viruses that can cause gastrointestinal distress such as throwing up and diarrhea.
According to a study that was recently published in the journal Environmental Pollution, a group of researchers from Stirling University have demonstrated for the very first time that it is possible for viruses to survive and continue to spread by attaching themselves to plastics that are present in water.
This study raises questions about the influence on human health and potential health risks, as it is easy for someone swimming to swallow microplastics, which could pose a threat to human health.
The most recent study is the pioneering investigation of its sort since it utilizes water collected from the natural environment to investigate the issue of microplastics and viruses. Previous studies focused exclusively on the spread of these viruses within sterile medical environments.
In the study, the researchers from Stirling University utilized two species of model viruses, rotavirus (RV) SA11, which is a human gastrointestinal virus, and the bacteriophage virus Phi6, and examined how they attach themselves to microplastic pellets in three distinct types of water: surface water that has been filtered, surface water that has not been filtered, and surface water that has been added nutrients.
When compared to viruses that were dwelling in the water, those that were hitchhiking on microplastic pellets proved to be more resilient than their aquatic counterparts. For instance, it was discovered that the rotavirus, which is responsible for stomach cramps and diarrhea, may live in lake water for up to three days by attaching itself to the surfaces of microplastics and therefore preventing its death. Because virus particles were able to cling to the surface of the microplastic, they were protected from environmental factors such as ultraviolet light, which would normally be lethal to them.
A more dangerous foe than anyone has anticipated before.
“Even though a wastewater treatment plant is doing everything it can to clean sewage waste, the water discharged from the plant still has microplastics in it. These microplastics are then transported down the river, into the estuary, and eventually end up on the beach. “They do live, and they do remain infectious,” Richard Quilliam, the lead researcher on the investigation at Stirling University in the United Kingdom, stated in a press statement. “We weren’t sure how well viruses could survive by ‘hitch-hiking’ on plastic in the environment.”
“Microplastics are so small that they have the potential to be consumed by someone swimming, and sometimes they wash up on the beach as pellets called nurdles that are about the size of lentils and are brilliantly colored. Children may pick them up and put them in their mouths.” There doesn’t need to be a lot of virus particles for you to get sick. If the viruses are able to escape from the plastic and enter the water or the sand, their ability to survive in the environment is improved. As a result of this study, potentially harmful viruses and bacteria may be able to travel across oceans without being carried by humans. This could have far-reaching implications for human health all around the world. The researchers are going to investigate how long the viruses can remain infectious in order to learn more about the unknown dangers that could arise from the combination of the harm posed by microplastic pollution and the danger posed by viruses.
“This research is very much a proof-of-concept for conducting more research into how long pathogens can survive by binding to microplastics, as we only tested for three days,” Quilliam said. “Since we only tested for three days, this research is very much a proof-of-concept for conducting more research into how long pathogens can survive by binding to microplastics.”