Nobody, it seemed, had thought to look before.
When two Austrian scientists discovered last year that its likely most people have plastic inside their bodies, it wasnt because they had invented some new, complicated scientific method. It was because they were the first to check.
Their approach was simple. They asked eight people, mostly in Europe, but also in Japan and Russia, to keep a weeklong food diary. Then, they examined stool samples from their subjects, looking for plastic.
They found it in every single one: On average, 20 tiny pieces in each 10 grams of stool; given that humans poop on average 400 to 500 grams a day, that means their subjects were likely passing some 800 to 1,000 pieces of so-called microplastic daily.
The scientists, Philipp Schwabl, a researcher at the Medical University of Vienna, and Bettina Liebmann of Austrias environment agency, are the first to admit their findings are at best preliminary. Their results dont say where that plastic came from, what exactly it contains, and how — or whether — it is affecting our health.
The Great Pacific garbage patch; debris found in fish, turtles and whales; microscopic pieces within us — plastic, it seems, is literally everywhere.
The study is just now undergoing peer review, and much larger sample sizes will be needed to confirm its conclusions. But based on their results, the scientists estimate that more than half of the worlds population might have plastic passing through their bodies.
The study set off a wave of concern about the potential impact plastic could be having on humans, adding momentum to the transformation that plastic is undergoing in the public consciousness.
In its short history, plastic has gone from miracle material to a cause of mounting global concern. The Great Pacific garbage patch; debris found in fish, turtles and whales; microscopic pieces within us — plastic, it seems, is literally everywhere.
And as a substance, its turning out to be devilishly difficult to do something about. Plastic is cheap to produce, useful nearly everywhere and incredibly durable. These qualities make it nearly indispensable to large swathes of the modern economy, from packaging and fashion to medicine and transportation. They also make it a nightmare to regulate or dispose of.
Plastics can lodge in the organs of fish, causing inflammation and physical damage | Miguel Riopa/AFP via Getty Images
At the same time, even if the science isnt yet clear about the effect plastics have on our bodies, worries are rapidly mounting.
“Were running this big human experiment on how they will affect us,” said Alice Bernard, a lawyer for environmental advocacy group ClientEarth. “It was not thought through at all.”
Its taken just over a century for plastics to become a ubiquitous part of our lives, our environment and perhaps even our bodies.
The first mass-produced plastic was invented in 1907, by Belgian-born scientist Leo Baekeland. In creating a hard, moldable material that would retain its shape after being heated, Baekeland opened a Pandoras box in reverse — a flurry of hope followed by microscopic mayhem.
The plastics boom began in earnest after World War II, when global production skyrocketed from 1.5 million tons annually in 1950 to 100 million tons in 1989. In 2017, nearly 350 million tons were being produced each year.
Of more than 6 billion tons of plastic waste produced since the 1950s, only 9 percent has been recycled, and 12 percent has been burned.
“In product after product, market after market, plastics challenged traditional materials and won,” wrote author Susan Freinkel in a book on the materials ubiquity. Plastics possibilities are near-endless: In its various forms it has replaced steel in cars, wood in furniture, paper and glass in packaging, and cotton in clothes.
It didnt take long for the material to move into the environment.
Although most plastics are derived from petroleum — an organic matter — the manufacturing process warps individual chemical units found in petroleum, helping them form extremely strong carbon bonds unlike anything produced in nature. Because of this uniqueness, the organisms that decompose organic matter dont know how to break down plastic.
This, combined with the fact that many plastic items are used once and thrown away, means the vast majority of the plastic that has been produced is still out there, somewhere.
Of more than 6 billion tons of plastic waste produced since the 1950s, only 9 percent has been recycled, and 12 percent has been burned.
Bio-degradable glitter, an alternative to microplastics, has gained more fans amongst festival and carnival goers | Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images
Some of the other 4.7 billion tons of plastic waste sits in landfills, little trash mountains piling up in every country in the world.
Some of it is floating in the oceans, contributing to island-sized patches of floating garbage accumulated by rotating ocean currents. The rest of it surrounds us in the form of microplastics, particles ranging in size from microscopic to 5 millimeters long.
The term microplastics was coined in 2004 by Richard Thompson, a professor of marine biology at Plymouth University. He noticed that groups trying to clean up plastic pollution on beaches were mainly looking for “trophy items” like tires and fishing nets. He decided to look a bit closer.
“We found small bits among the sand grains that looked like sand grains,” he said. “We confirmed that they were plastic.”
Microplastics can act as a “vehicle” for some of the more harmful chemical additives in plastic | Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images
The microplastics varied in size and origin: Some were created at a very small size — think the little beads in exfoliating cosmetics or in fertilizers — but most of them are the result of bigger plastic items breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, then slipping into the environment unnoticed. The two biggest sources of unintentionally released microplastics are wear from synthetic rubber tires and plastic fibers released from washing polyester or nylon clothes.
Thompsons research demonstrated that the amount of microscopic plastic on beaches has increased substantially since the 1960s. And he made another discovery. “We showed that a range of creatures can ingest that material,” he said.
In the years since, Thompsons findings have been confirmed over and over again. Microplastics have been found in nearly every fish and aquatic animal thats been tested.
Mussels in the coal mine
Now concern is growing about the effect of plastics on the human body, primarily informed by research that has been done on animal health.
Studies have found that sea birds, and marine animals like whales that filter-feed, can ingest so many microplastics that they accumulate in their digestive systems and block the ability to digest food. Others found that plastics can lodge in the organs of fish, causing inflammation and physical damage by jabbing and rubbing up against organ walls.
And beyond the mechanical problems caused by small pieces of non-biodegradable material stuck in organs, research has also shown that microplastics can act as a “vehicle” for some of the more harmful chemical additives in plastic, carrying them directly into the bodies of animals.
“They can soak up all these substances from other toxins, colorants and additives, and bring those into an organism,” said Frédérique Mongodin, a marine litter policy officer at the environmental NGO Seas at Risk.
This contamination from microplastics has been found in marine animals big and small, and its been linked to a host of problems, from inhibiting brain activity in tilapia fish to contributing to the early death of whales.
Plastic pollution does not have the known deadly effects that other environmental challenges do.
But while it may seem intuitive that its only a matter of time until negative effects are proven for humans too, most researchers are more cautious.
Plastic has been found in the guts of many commercially fished species, but since humans dont generally eat fish stomachs, scientists thought it was possible we werent digesting it. Plastic also shows up in a range of food products — from table salt to drinking water to beer — but until Schwabl and Liebmann started looking through fecal samples, nobody had showed it was present in our bodies in large quantities.
Some scientists wondered if seafood we eat whole, like mussels, could be carrying chemicals from plastics into our bodies, but they found were exposed to most of these from so many other places that microplastics from eating seafood is actually a negligible factor.
Schwabl and Liebmanns study has helped propel a new wave of research — partly because it left two important questions unanswered.
A wild deer rummage through garbage dumped at an open ground in Sri Lanka | Lukruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP via Getty Images
First, it cant say anything about where the plastic came from. “We showed it must have been swallowed,” Schwabl said. But thats it. The plastic could have been in something people ate or drank, or it could have migrated from materials in packaging or forks.
Second, it says nothing about whether the plastics in our guts are doing us any harm.
The gastrointestinal tract serves as a barrier between what we eat and our insides. Some who have looked at the study argue that as long as the plastics simply pass through our digestive system and are flushed out as waste, there may not be a problem. “And I second that opinion,” Schwabl said.
Funding is being doled out globally to research projects that are examining whether microplastics pose a risk to human health. But as scientists call for more research on human health impacts, some are also calling for the response to be proportional to the risk.
Plastic pollution does not have the known deadly effects that other environmental challenges do. Air pollution contributes to 7 million deaths annually, and climate change-related diseases could each year claim a quarter of a million lives. Plastic pollution has never been blamed for a single death.
Of the 11.7 million tons of microplastics estimated to enter the environment every year, only 3 million of them began as tiny particles.
“There is a big discrepancy between the magnitude of this debate and actual scientific findings, which have merely shown the presence of microplastics in certain products,” concluded Sinja Rist, a researcher from the Technical University of Denmark, in a critical look at the science of microplastics and human health. “The recent debate has created a skewed picture of human plastic exposure.”
Burkina Faso: Growing Violence Threatens Health Care
Away from the worlds attention, Burkina Faso has been slipping into violence. In less than a year, t..
Away from the worlds attention, Burkina Faso has been slipping into violence. In less than a year, the number of displaced has increased fivefold, from 50,000 last December, to 270,000 in August. As ever, the most vulnerable suffer most: the very young, and the very old.
When Alidou Sawadogos elderly mother fell ill, he faced a long and dangerous journey to get treatment for her.
“When she collapsed, a friend called me,” he explains. “By the time I arrived she was already unconscious. I decided to take her to the health center and luckily someone who had a motorcycle helped me. Because of the violence many people who are sick wait at home and die. Everyone is afraid of taking the road to the health center in Barsalogho.”
Across Burkina Faso, the rising insecurity has forced over a hundred health centers to close, or to limit their work. Half a million people now have little or no access to health care. Dedicated health workers, among them Dr Bertrand Dibli in Barsalogho, are struggling to meet the needs, and to stay safe themselves.
“This is one of the few health centers that isnt closed,” he says. “We dont have enough equipment. And the insecurity has caused huge anxiety among health workers. Even coming here to Barsalogho is a huge challenge because the route is so dangerous.”
The ICRC has been working to support Burkina Fasos health professionals, with medical kits, and vaccination campaigns. During his visit to the country, ICRC President Peter Maurer expressed his concern at the multiple challenges facing Burkina Fasos people.
“We are very concerned,” he said. “Very worried about the upsurge in violence, its a vicious circle that is trapping the civilian population between armed groups.”
“We also see,” Mr Maurer added, “that it is not only the violence that is affecting the country, it is also under development, and climate change. Together with the violence that is obstructing the health services, its an accumulation of factors.”
And so the ICRC – jointly with the Burkinabé Red Cross – is also delivering food to the displaced, and helping to improve access to water supplies. All of this, says nurse Jeanette Kientega, is desperately needed by a population uprooted by conflict, and denied access to basic health care.
“By the time they are able to get here, it is often too late” she says. “Sometimes we can help, but if they have already been ill a long time, it is difficult. We try to do what we can.” (more…)
World Bank and WHO Statement on Partnership & Deployment of Financing to WHO for Ebola Response in DRC
WASHINGTON, August 23, 2019—The World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO), along with the G..
WASHINGTON, August 23, 2019—The World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO), along with the Government and other key partners, are working in close partnership on the Ebola Crisis Response in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Central to this partnership is the assessment of the financing needs, and deployment of resources, with the goal to put an end to the current deadly outbreak.
The World Bank is today announcing that US$50 million in funding is to be released to WHO for its lifesaving operational work on the frontlines of the outbreak. The WHO is announcing that this US$50 million in funds will close the financing gap for its emergency health response in DRC through to the end of September 2019, and is calling on other partners to mirror this generous support in order to fund the response through to December.
The funding comprises US$30 million from the Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility (PEF) and US$20 million from the World Bank. The US$50 million in grant funding is part of the larger financial package of approximately US$300 million that the World Bank announced last month to support the fourth Strategic Response Plan for the DRC Ebola outbreak.
“WHO is very grateful for the World Banks support, which fills a critical gap in our immediate needs for Ebola response efforts in DRC, and will enable the heroic workers on the frontlines of this fight to continue their lifesaving work,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organization. “We keenly await further funding from other partners to sustain the response through to the end of the year.”
The DRC government, working in collaboration with the World Bank, WHO, and other key partners, has finalized the Fourth Strategic Response Plan (SRP4), which outlines the total resources needed for the DRC Ebola Crisis Response from July to December 2019. The financing announced today is part of the World Banks previously announced financial package of up to US$300 million and covers over half of SRP4s needs, with the remainder requiring additional funding from other donors and partners.
“The World Bank is working closely with WHO, the Government of DRC, and all partners to do everything we can to put an end to the latest Ebola outbreak,” said Annette Dixon, Vice President, Human Development at the World Bank. “The partnership between our organizations and the Government is critical for responding to the emergency as well as rebuilding systems for delivery of basic services and to restoring the trust of communities.”
The Government of DRC requested US$30 million from the PEF Cash Window to be paid directly to WHO. The PEF Steering Body approved the request bringing the PEFs total contribution to fighting Ebola in DRC to US$61.4 million. The PEF is a financing mechanism housed at the World Bank; its Steering Body is co-chaired by the World Bank and WHO, and comprises donor country members from Japan, Germany and Australia. The quick and flexible financing it provides saves lives, by enabling governments and international responders to concentrate on fighting Ebola—not fundraising.
Borno State launches first Malaria Operational Plan, reawakens fight against malaria
Maiduguri, 13 August 2019 – Following recommendations from malaria interventions in Borno State Nige..
Maiduguri, 13 August 2019 – Following recommendations from malaria interventions in Borno State Nigeria, the Malaria Annual Operational Plan (MAOP) was developed and launched on 08 August 2019 with technical support from the World Health Organization (WHO) and partners. Aligned to the National Malaria Strategic Plan (2014 -2020), MAOP was developed through a broad-based stakeholders workshop involving malaria stakeholders, reviewed on different thematic areas and endorsed by the Commissioner for Health and Permanent Secretary, Borno State Ministry of Health.
Speaking during the launch, the Borno state Malaria Programme Manager, Mr Mala Waziri described the MAOP as the first to be endorsed and disseminated in Borno State. “WHO has made us proud by supporting the first ever Malaria Operational Plan right from development, review, printing to dissemination.”
Dr Ibrahim Kida, the Ministerial Secretary Borno State Ministry of Health and Incident Manager of the state, described the launch as “an historic event as stakeholders across the health sector made commitments to use the document as an implementation guide for all malaria programs”. The plan was also described as an advocacy tool for planning domestic funds mobilization.
The MAOP has seven objectives among which are: provide at least 50% of targeted population with appropriate preventive measures by 2020; ensure that all persons with suspected malaria who seek care are tested with Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) or microscopy by 2020 and all persons with confirmed malaria seen in private or public health facilities receive prompt treatment with an effective anti-malarial drug by 2020.
The MAOP will further ensure that at least 50% of the population practice appropriate malaria prevention and management by 2020, ensuring timely availability of appropriate anti-malarial medicines and commodities required for prevention, diagnosis and treatment of malaria in Borno State by 2020.
In addition, it seeks to ensure that all health facilities report on key malaria indicators routinely by 2020 and finally strengthen governance and coordination of all stakeholders for effective program implementation towards an A rating by 2020 on a standardized scorecard. These strategic objectives have specific targets and the MAOP takes into account the humanitarian response.
“Malaria remains a leading cause of poor health in Nigeria. According to the 2018 WHO Malaria Report, 53million cases are recorded annually in Nigeria, roughly 1 in 4 persons is infected with malaria contributing 25% of the global burden,” says Dr Nglass Ini Abasi, WHO Malaria Consultant for the North East.
“Furthermore, 81,640 deaths are recorded annually (9 deaths every hour), which accounts for 19% of global malaria deaths (1 in 5 global malaria deaths) and 45% malaria deaths in West Africa. The Nigeria Malaria Strategic Plan (NMSP) 2014-2020 has a goal to reduce malaria burden to pre-elimination levels and bring malaria-related mortality to zero and WHO is working assiduously with Government to ensure the burden is reduced accordingly.”
Results from WHO’s Early Warning, Alert and Response System (EWARS) week 30 report from 223 sites, (including 32 IDP camps) show that malaria was the leading cause of morbidity and mortality accounting for 35% of cases and 46% of reported deaths. In addition, results from the Nigeria Humanitarian Response Strategy (NHRS 2019-2021) indicate 7.1million people are in dire need of healthcare and 6.2million are targeted for immediate attention.
Despite recent improvements, insecurity remains a challenge limiting access to the functional health facilities. Easily preventable and treatable diseases such as malaria, acute respiratory infection and diarrheal diseases account for the greatest proportion of morbidity and mortality among the vulnerable population. Furthermore, Malaria is endemic in North East Nigeria and the transmission is perennial with a marked seasonal peak from July to November every year. (more…)
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