A Poison Like No Other

How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies

Review from 5Gyres 11/18/2022

In A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies, science journalist Matt Simon reveals the shocking extent of microplastic pollution and its far-reaching consequences for human and animal health. Speaking with scientists on the frontlines of the microplastic crisis, Simon uncovers exactly what makes these tiny particles so dangerous, how they have spread to every corner of the Earth, and solutions to stem the tide of plastic.

Plastic is ubiquitous in our everyday lives. Consider your daily habits: you get dressed in synthetic clothes, brush your teeth with a plastic toothbrush, have some yogurt (from a plastic container) for breakfast, drive to work on plastic tires. And that’s just a mere handful of the countless times you’ll come in contact with plastic throughout your day.

Plastic encases our food, it’s in the air we breathe, it’s in our blood. It’s hard to picture a world without plastic, but that world actually existed not too long ago.

The History

In A Poison Like No Other, Matt Simon takes us back in time to where it all began.

A Life magazine cover celebrating “Throwaway Living” in 1955.

“To say that WW II hooked the world on plastic like it was an opioid would be an insult to opioids. You can treat a person addicted to a drug, but you can’t get plastic out of humanity’s system—ever. Being honest, plastic is a miracle material. Get rid of single-use plastics like shopping bags, to be sure, but not plastic syringes and other medical devices, not plastic wiring insulators, not the many components in our cars and electronics. Level any criticism at the petrochemical industry about how they’re drowning the world in plastic and the first thing they’ll remind you is just how useful the stuff is. It’s our fault as consumers that we’re misusing plastic instead of recycling, which is a bit like opioid manufacturers blaming patients for getting hooked on their drugs.”

And once we were hooked on plastic, there was no turning back. A spread in Life Magazine in 1955 marks the pivotal and ominous moment we shifted toward a throwaway culture that still holds strong today. The photo features a glowing family surrounded by single-use plastic items – plates, cups, utensils – with copy that reads, “The objects flying through the air in this picture would take 40 hours to clean—except that no housewife need bother. They are all meant to be thrown away after use.”

Life became more convenient, but at what cost?

The Impact

Plastic never dies. Instead, it breaks down into ever smaller pieces, as everything from nurdle spills at sea to a nylon shirt tossed into the trash eventually becomes microplastic. These tiny particles are insidious new pollutants colonizing the planet, from food to water to the air itself. Scientists are just beginning to uncover how microplastics might threaten health, but each new study is more alarming.

“Exactly how much plastic humanity has produced thus far, we’ll never know. But scientists have taken a swing at an estimate: more than 18 trillion pounds, twice the weight of all the animals living on Earth. Of that, 14 trillion pounds have become waste. Just 9 percent of that waste has been recycled, and 12 percent has been incinerated. The rest has been landfilled or released into the environment, where each bag and bottle and wrapper shatters into millions of microplastics,” writes Simon.

Unlike other pollutants that are single elements or simple chemical compounds, microplastics represent a cocktail of toxicity. Plastics can contain 10,000 different chemicals, many of which are linked to diseases such as diabetes and cancer. These plastic fragments have become an unavoidable poison, spreading through the ocean, and being consumed along the entire marine food chain, from plankton to whales.

The story on land is just as dire, with microplastics tainting groundwater, soil, and—by extension—the food we eat. Even the air is polluted – just by walking around in synthetic clothing, a person might shed a billion microfibers a year, which can then be inhaled.

It sounds dire, but it’s not all bad news. Solutions do exist, and they start with holding corporations responsible for plastic pollution, advocating for better regulations, and putting a tax on virgin plastic.

A Poison Like No Other is a stunning expose on the dangers of microplastics for people and the planet. Simon follows the intrepid scientists who travel to the ends of the earth and the bottom of the ocean to understand the consequences of our plastic dependence. There is no easy fix, but we will never curb our plastic addiction until we begin to recognize the invisible particles all around us.

Read article on 5Gyres 11/18/2022