TWH – In September, scientists at McGill University in Canada reported that tea bags release more than tea into the teacup. Some tea bags also release millions of microscopic plastic particles. Contrary to popular belief, plastic occurs in various types of tea bags. Many tea bags use a plastic sealant to hold the tea bag together. High-end, mesh tea bags have a shape like a pyramid. Frequently, plastic makes up those pyramids. The McGill study only examined the plastic pyramid tea-bags.
Many neo-Pagans hold protecting the earth as a core spiritual value. Like a heart attack blocking an artery, pollution blocks the bio-changes of the circle of life. The earth finds it difficult to transform plastics. Plastic pollution is the result.
The science of plastic nanoparticles
As plastics degrade, they break down into increasingly smaller pieces. Plastics fail to disappear. They just become more difficult to see. Minuscule bits of plastic pose an unseen danger. As a result, ingestion can then occur without any awareness.
Scientists have labeled these minuscule particles “microplastics” and “nanoplastics.” Microplastic refers to “a piece of plastic that is five millimeters” (0.2 inches) or less. The American Chemical Society defines a nanoplastic as “less than 100 nanometers (nm) in size.” By comparison, a human hair has a diameter of roughly 75,000 nanometers.
Nanoplastics pose a three-fold danger. First, they form an inorganic substance. When ingested, their mere presence can block normal cellular exchanges in their vicinity. Secondly, the surface area of a nanoplastic makes up a larger part of its volume than it would in larger plastic particles. Plastics draw many toxins and heavy metals to their surface. Thirdly, micro-organisms form a bio-film on the surface of a nanoplastic particle.
People have found microplastics everywhere they have looked. Microplastics may be completely unavoidable.
In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a 124-page report, “Microplastics in Drinking Water.” WHO found microplastics in wild waters, tap water, bottled water, food, and the air. According to the WHO report, surface run-off and waste-water carry microplastics into freshwater reserves and rivers. That freshwater will flow into the world’s oceans.
In the Pacific, microplastics join with other trash to form the soup named “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” A large part of this patch consists of plastics that are over 50 years old. Those plastics predate the economic boom of the East Asian region. This suggests that that Patch will grow as more recent microplastics flow into the ocean.
Millions of sea animals die each year from interactions with plastics. This includes both the ingestion of microplastics and entanglement by large plastic objects.
Many people think recycling bins can resolve the problem of plastic pollution if only everyone recycled. Unfortunately, the actually existing recycling industry differs from its image. The “developed” world exports a large amount of its plastic waste to the developing world. Much of recycling is outsourced.
Once again, people in developing nations end up having to deal with issues created by more privileged countries. In the developing world, regulations are much laxer. Those lax regulations result in poor quality control of the recycling process. In addition, the lack of various protections for workers results in hazardous working conditions.
This global trade in plastic waste leaves a large carbon footprint. Shipping waste has the potential for accidents at sea. Those accidents would release large amounts of plastics directly into the ocean.
A hundred years ago, the industrial world held sway over much of the developing world, through the process of colonization. The majority of first-world nations continue to send waste products to the developing world, essentially treating those areas as a global garbage dump. As various countries continue to develop and create stronger economies, they are beginning to move away from accepting the exported trash from other nations. China stopped buying plastic waste in 2018.
The McGill Experiment
While drinking tea, Nathalie Tufenkji, a researcher at McGill, first thought of this experiment. She noticed that the tea-bag appeared to be a plastic pyramid. Immediately, she began to wonder about its health implications.
The experiment used tea bags from four unnamed brands. In January 2016, the researchers bought tea bags in stores in Montreal, Canada.
The scientists separated the bags from the tea and brewed the bags in purified water. They heated the water to 95o C (203o F) for 5 minutes. After it cooled, they examined the brewed water for microplastics and nanoplastics.
They found that a person drinking one cup of pyramidal tea could swallow 2.3 million microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastics.
In the next phase, the researchers exposed 4 mm long neonate crustaceans Daphnia Magna (a type of plankton) to the microplastics. Then they examined those crustaceans. The researchers found microplastics and nanoplastics in the bodies of the crustaceans. They also found anatomical and swimming abnormalities.
The McGill researchers concluded that “the scarce body of data on nanoplastics, on both human exposure and potential toxicity, cannot predict the health risk of consuming nanoplastics.”
Paper tea bags, safer?
While both loose leaf tea and tea bags are sold, 96.2% of tea drinkers use tea bags. Some manufacturers use polypropylene, a sealing plastic, to seal the tea bag together. It can neither biodegrade nor be recycled. The volume of plastic in a sealer, however, is much less than the volume of plastic in a tea bag pyramid. Presumably, a plastic sealer will release fewer microplastic particles than the tea bag pyramids.
Pyramidal tea bags
According to Peter Goggi of the Tea Association of America, pyramid tea bags are made from both biodegradable and non-biodegradable plastics. Some pyramid tea bags consist of nylon or polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics. Biodegradable plastic makes up other pyramid tea bags. Traditional paper tea bags form the vast majority of the tea bag market. Out of all tea bags sold, the pyramidal tea bags represent only about 5% of that market. They occupy the high-end of that market.
Health risks associated with microplastics and nanoplastics
The WHO report on microplastics found a low health risk from microplastics in drinking water. While they did not report any health risk from nanoplastics, it does not mean that nanoplastics pose no danger. It merely means that no one has yet proven or disproven a health risk related to nanoplastics.
Another researcher, environmental scientist Kevin Thomas, director of the Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences in Australia, said, “There is evidence that nanoparticles, not necessarily derived from plastics, can cause our immune system to respond at a cellular level.” Thomas thinks that nanoparticles enter the body through the wall of the gut.
Thomas is aware of the higher levels of microplastics in the ocean and sea life. Yet, he says, “I think there’s little risk to our health based on what we know … but then, who knows what we might find in the future. I eat seafood, for example, but I don’t use plastic chopping boards at home.”
The cutting and chopping action could produce and release into the food being prepared more microplastics. Thomas continued, “But I would advocate avoiding plastics and reducing our reliance on them. Releasing plastics into our environment like we are is unacceptable.”
TWH will continue to follow and report back on what science in the fields of health and environmental science discover as more studies are completed and published.