"I think we've been quite naïve in terms of how we've dealt with plastic and how we've let it contaminate every sphere of the environment: from the highest points of the Himalayas to the deep ocean trenches, we find plastic now."
Professor Kevin Thomas has been studying plastic since before it was cool, and he’s right – once it hits the tallest mountain peak and the bottom of the ocean, it gets a bit hard to ignore.
And yeah, it's unsightly and terrible for the environment, but what about the stuff you can’t see?
When plastic breaks down, it doesn’t go away – it just gets smaller. It also leaches chemicals, and we have no idea what either of these things do to our bodies.
Scary, right? It’s why The University of Queensland and the Minderoo Foundation have joined forces to try to find out how tiny pieces of plastic (and the chemicals used to make it) could end up inside us, and what it means for human health.
Travel with us from a beach on the west coast of Wales to a world-first lab in Brisbane to chart the unknown waters of micro and nanoplastics. Should you be using that plastic water bottle that’s been baking in your car over summer? Truth is: we don’t really know yet. But we’re figuring it out for you.
Doomscroll Remedy takes you to the edge of the existential crises that keep us up at night and introduces you to the experts working to solve them.
Doomscroll Remedy is a University of Queensland podcast, produced by Deadset Studios.
Hosted by Stephen Stockwell. Produced by Grace Pashley, Krissy Miltiadou and Rachel Fountain at Deadset Studios, in partnership with consulting producer Zoe McDonald and commissioning editor Greta Usasz at The University of Queensland.
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the land on which this show was made.
The west coast of Wales is pretty rural has very long, yellow sandy beaches, I think some of the best beaches in the UK. And my job was to start at the kind of the north of our area and drive south, every other day.Stephen Stockwell:
Meet Professor Kevin Thomas. He's from the University of Queensland and enjoys long walks on the beach. This is quite nice, isn't it? These wash beaches sounds actually a fair bit better than I was expecting.Professor Kevin Thomas:
And they would range from you know, huge open beaches similar to the ones you see on the Sunshine Coast through just kind of smaller beaches that maybe you've seen in Canada if you watch some of the UK TV series down in Cornwall, you know, more kind of small rocky coves with with a small sandy beach.Stephen Stockwell:
Now you know, Kevin and how he described beaches, let me introduce myself. I'm Stephen Stockwell. And this is Doom scroll remedy where we track down the people tackling the problems overwhelming our feeds, and us. This is a podcast from the University of Queensland where we try to understand how we got ourselves into these messy situations and what some of us finest are doing to get us out of them. In this episode, we're going to take a trip from this beach, to a world first lab in Brisbane to find out just how far plastic is traveling into our bodies. You see, Kevin is a plastic researcher these days, he's the director of the Queensland alliance for Environmental Health Sciences at UQ. He's also heading up this new research partnership with the Minderoo Foundation, which I'll explain in a bit. But back on these Welsh beaches, Kevin was working for the National rivers authority looking for plastic,Professor Kevin Thomas:
and the one that I kind of think back to was a place called new key where I'd gone on holiday a lot as a kid. And there, I started to kind of get there really early in the morning because the counselor actually started running a machine over the beach to kind of clean away the debris on the strand line. And that's because they wanted it to be really clean for the tourists. What we'd find on on that beach, kind of especially after a big storm would be you know, the plastic rod that comes from cotton buds that people put in their ears. And the plastic applicators for for sanitary products. And there wouldn't be a huge amount on cigarette butts was the other thing we would see a lot of back then. And there wouldn't be a lot. But it was a sign that you know, plastic was making its way from, from sewage systems out into the ocean and then back onto our beaches.Stephen Stockwell:
Now obviously, this plastic didn't start its life on these beaches. I mean, maybe some of it did, but most of it was flowing into the ocean. So Kevin's work took him to sea.Professor Kevin Thomas:
And part of that would be trawling for fish to look at the health of the fish and what chemicals were in those fish. And that's when we started to see that in those trolls there was also a lot of plastic litter coming up. But the one thing I do remember vividly is we we pulled out a tie from one of these large mining trucks. And that was quite exciting, you know, trying to deal with with this huge kind of tire and how that ends up in the middle of the ocean. I have no idea. You know, it has to be dumped off a ship at the end of the day. But but in terms of the smallest waist it was it was tended, well tended to be kind of plastic film products, drinks bottles, and kind of yogurt containers, those types of things that we would find.Stephen Stockwell:
Do you look back at that time, you're on the trawler in the 90s. And just feel like we really didn't understand what impact that plastic was having in the ecosystems.Professor Kevin Thomas:
I don't think we even thought back then that the plastic was going to be having a major impact on our ecosystems. I think we were quite naive. And I think we've been quite naive in terms of how we've dealt with plastic and how we've let it contaminate, I guess every sphere of the environment. You know, from the highest points of the Himalayas to the deep ocean trenches, we find plastic now. And I think that's kind of we dropped the ball in that we didn't really look at it in terms of how it would contaminate the environment and the entire planet.Stephen Stockwell:
It is no exaggeration that plastic is everywhere. Now, once you get the tallest peak and bottom of the ocean, it gets a bit hard to ignore. And yeah, it's unsightly, terrible for the environment, so on But what Kevin and the team at the Minderoo Foundation are really worried about is what you can't see. That's why Minderoo and the University of Queensland have joined forces to try and find out how tiny pieces of plastic and the chemicals used to make it could be ending up in our bodies.Professor Sarah Dunlop:
We're looking at the exposure to humans during everyday use of plastic and you'd be surprised just think trying to imagine a world without plastic. It's in everything. It's in construction materials. transport, food packaging, bottled water, cosmetics, electronic goods, the list just goes on. And we're exposed to both the plastic particles which break off all the time, as well as the chemicals that leach out. This isStephen Stockwell:
Professor Sarah Dunlop. She's the Minderoo Foundation's Director of Health and Medical Research. And when we caught up, she was wearing an absolutely fantastic scarf. She's based in Perth in Western Australia. But that's neither here nor there. When you start talking about where we rank as a country in the plastic waste race,Professor Sarah Dunlop:
Australians are apparently at the top of the league table in terms of our use, we throw away about 50 kilograms per person, per year. And when you think about the load of plastic that's on the planet already, since it's first first produced, it's about 8 billion metric tons. So that's the burning platform, if you like, this isStephen Stockwell:
where it starts to get scary. Now we know there are teeny tiny bits of plastic floating around, I guess, kind of everywhere. And now I'm wondering whether the Ragu and the cheap plastic container that's defrosting in my fridge right now is actually safe,Professor Sarah Dunlop:
that we need to think about plastic in two ways. One, the plastic particles, the micro plastics, and the Nano plastics, and two, the chemical additives, which make plastic what it is the plasticizers, UV stabilizers. And those chemicals actually leach out of the plastic and get into us. We know we're just beginning to learn about the micro and nanoplastics. And we know nothing virtually about their health effects. Whereas with the chemicals, we know quite a lot about a fraction of them. And the links that that exposure has with harms to human health.Stephen Stockwell:
What's the difference between a micro and a nano plastic? I mean, how far into my body can they actually get,Professor Sarah Dunlop:
there's really one simple difference, and that is size, we're looking at something the size of viruses. So we've seen pictures, lots of pictures of COVID-19 the virus. And then if you compare that to the size of a cell, a cell is about 10 microns. And that's could be the size of your microplastics. And then the Nanos 1000 times smaller, and they can very easily sit inside cells. And one of the things we're concerned about is that say you I mean, we do we consume microplastics they've been found in our stools, so they're in our they've got that far. The question then is how much further do they get into the human body, and we think that the smaller they are, the further they can get. We've seen microplastics in colon samples after resection and also lung tissue associated with inflammation, which I mentioned earlier, the nanoplastics are really hard to chase because we don't really have reliable techniques that yet. And that's why we're working with Kevin Thomas at UQ. To develop these techniques, once we've got that these tiny, tiny levels, I mean parts per billion is equivalent to one teaspoon in an Olympic sized swimming pool, or as I said, one tennis ball between here and a couple of 100 kilometers away. So we need to know how to measure them before we can understand their health effects. When you startStephen Stockwell:
thinking about it in that sense, I guess it does get kind of easy to see potentially how they can start creeping into our bodies and start breaching through various kind of cell walls and barriers. That'sProfessor Sarah Dunlop:
right. I mean, there are some very strong barriers in our bodies, there's the gut barrier to start with, and they're there for a reason. And then the blood brain barrier. But there's another issue if you're a fit and healthy person, those barriers will be pretty robust and intact. But in various illnesses, for example, Crohn's disease, and other neurodegenerative diseases, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and as such, like the blood brain barrier is leaky. And so it's very easy for particles to get across. And they can get across either by just sipping in between the cells because those connections have broken between the cells or they can get taken up by the cells and shuttled across to the other side. So two different ways in are both equally plausible for such tiny particles.Stephen Stockwell:
Okay, so right now, we still don't know for sure whether these nano plastics are getting into our brain. Scientists all over the world have been trying to figure this out. But so far, it's actually been really hard to measure such tiny units of plastic. This is where the UQ and Minderoo partnership could be a game changer.Professor Sarah Dunlop:
So the next steps are to to get the techniques for Measuring nanoplastics in human blood, urine, solid tissues go on improving the techniques for measuring the plastic chemicals. So back to the science, it's about getting the measurement techniques, right, and identifying which other chemicals we need to be looking at. And also looking at those impacts on human health. I mean, the real jewel in the crown here is to figure out where the nanoplastics are get into our in our bodies, and what links there are to human health.Dr Cassie:
When I was a kid, I used to watch a cartoon called Captain Planet. And that was big on saving the environment and sustainability and taking your reusable bags to the shopping center and not using single use plastic bags. So I think as a kid, even then I knew about it and was thinking about it. Again, I think that show had a big impact on me, which is a bit nerdy, but that's it.Stephen Stockwell:
I mean, Captain Planet was probably what made me start thinking about the environment too, but I never really followed through like Dr. Cassie route has. She's now one of the leading researchers in the Minderoo center for plastics and human health at UQ. And is working in a world first plastic research lab. All through this story, people kept talking about this lab, a space that has been purpose built to try and eliminate as much plastic as possible, even with a special air pressure system to keep it from blowing in. And now I wanted to see what all the fuss was about going. Are we allowed in this room.Unknown:
But I won't take you through all free rooms. But I'll show you. We've just walked into what we're calling the ante room is like the first level of the cleanroom clean lab. So we've got three rooms. This is the ante room. And then we've got an airlock, which is really a tiny box that we go through next. And then after the airline is the actual clean area.Stephen Stockwell:
When Cassie says clean, she doesn't mean like I just wiped down this kitchen bench with a filthy cloth. And now it's clean, clean. She means this room has been designed in painstaking detail by scientists and architects to keep plastic nasty out. There aren't many spaces in the world that have this little plastic inUnknown:
them. The architects have designed the the airflow and everything in here that it's called positive pressure. So there's a higher air pressure in the cleanroom. And then it goes down to the airlock. And then it goes down to the anteroom. And then it goes down to level six. So the idea is when you're opening doors, you're not dragging stuff from outside in with you, it's flowing out. So really, yeah, architects have done a great job coming up with these really unique solutions. So as you can see, this is not the stainless steel box that we're in right now. So this is what was the first level. So we've still got vinyl flooring, we actually tested about 40 different products to see if we could find a flooring and walls and ceiling that didn't contain any microplastics or any plastic additives like valleys, and we couldn't find any. So even we had a special certified PVC, sorry, PVC free flooring, vinyl. And it still contained a small percentage of PVC and some valleys. And so this is why we ended up going with a stainless steel box only way that we could find to actually construct a room that didn't have consumables or paints that have polyethylene parts in them and things like that. And also keeping a clothing cupboard. So we wear lab coats, and that's the green lab coat you can see on the hook back there. So they're 100% cotton. So synthetic fibers, polyester nylon are actually classed as microplastics the little fibers that fall off from your clothing. So they're contamination source for us. Is the room completely plastic free? No, it's not. We're calling it the plastic minimize lab. All the summary. You can't we have done the best that we can. And there are certain safety things that you do need plastic. So for instance, the power switches, you can't put a cord in a metal box, it has to be plastic so that it's earthly you're not gonna electrocute yourself. So it was kind of give and take. Yeah, and as we go, we'll keep monitoring our background levels and seeing if we need to change procedures to reduce any plastics that are in there. So it's an ongoing process. So we do have a window and here we can see straight into the cleanroom. And that's can in there working. I can get him to give us a little wayStephen Stockwell:
to do a mind when you tap on the glass?Dr Cassie:
They haven't complained so far, but they might. Doesn't yet. Probably looks like you're like a little bit of a goldfish in there.Stephen Stockwell:
What can doing in there at the moment.Dr Cassie:
So Ken is working on some samples where we like I mentioned we were doing the background testing. So Ken's working on the plastic additives and in particular phalates, which are used as plasticizers. They added to plastics make them more bendable and a bit more durable. He's had samples that have been set up in each of the three rooms. He's now processing the now extracting and seeing what he can drag out of the samples. So what concentrations of phthalates were in each room while we were blink testing for a week. And we talked to Kim. Yeah, we can we've got an intercom system that goes from here into the cleanroom. So we can bring it and come and talk to us through the wall. Hey, Ken, can you hear us? I can hear you.Stephen Stockwell:
Yeah, we can hear you, Kim. This is great. Oh, you don't feel too claustrophobic in there. There's really good in the lab. I don't have to wear marks anymore. fairly comfortable. All right, um, I can see you got some headphones. In you're coming out of your scrubs. What do you what are you listening to? Oh, just keep up the good work. terrified, terrified of touching anything at this point. I feel like I'm covered in plastic. So we've just been around how to look at the lab. And sort of, you know, being in that space where you're doing this research, is that something that's ever been done before anywhere else in the world.Dr Cassie:
So there are a couple labs who have converted spaces to try and make them plastic minimized. And there's a couple over in Europe that we definitely have talked to the people there to get ideas from. But in terms of getting a space and then converting it completely from scratch, like so we put in new walls and roof and flooring and all this type of thing. As far as we know, this is the first time that's been done to this extent where we are really minimizing any vinyl flooring or any paints that might have little polyethylene microplastics or anything in them off the walls. And yeah, so to this extent, to our knowledge is the first time that this has been done.Stephen Stockwell:
So there is plastic in the air around us, we store food and water in plastic, I am wearing something with plastic in it pretty much all the time. And it feels like from what we already know about the risks. It's not going to end well. But I'm a silver lining cynic, I expect the worst and hope for the best. And if all things go well, at the UQ, a Minderoo plastics lab, we can actually answer some of these bigger questions about what nanoplastics actually do to us.Professor Sarah Dunlop:
We have to have hope. And we know what to do. So I think there are a lot of very bright minds out there. And our children will surely demand differently. We cannot leave them with a polluted planet.Stephen Stockwell:
How How worried? Do you think I should be at the moment? How worried are you right now?Professor Sarah Dunlop:
Well, I think silver lining cynic is, is it's a good good way of thinking of it. I am concerned that you can't be so concerned that it absolutely freezes you. We all need to realize that this is a planetary threat, and pull together in order to solve it. I don't have all the answers. What I do know is that by getting together and working together, we will come up with the answers and we'll make them happen. Because Steven we have to we cannot fail. We just cannotStephen Stockwell:
I guess if Sarah has hope I'll just keep enjoying this overcast beach and wait for the sun to come out. Make sure you follow Doom scroll remedy and your favorite podcast app so you can join me as we figure out what to do if someone you love is caught up in a conspiracy theory. We'll also unpack the feeling you get when the existential dread gets the better of you.Unknown:
When we experience anxiety. It's usually a situation that has caused us to feel vulnerable or exposed. And a sense of stress sort of can come over somebody so they feel a sense of fear that initiates this circuit of physiological changes and then the whole body responds.Stephen Stockwell:
Doomscroll remedy is a podcast from the University of Queensland. It's produced by deadset studios. It's hosted by me Steven Stockwell, produced by Grace Pashley the executive producer is Rachel fountain. The sound design is by Chrissy multiarch to consulting producer Zoe MacDonald and commissioning editor Greta uses