Food pollution involves the unwanted contamination of both chemical and biological substances in our food supply. It is crucial to explore the sources of food pollution in order to fully understand the potential devastating health effects that can result from ingested polluted food products.
Defining Food Pollution
The term food pollution can be used to describe any unwanted element, such as a toxic chemical or biological contaminant, found in food that is either not native to the product or at levels that are significantly greater than normal. The degree of health effects associated with exposure to food pollution can range from mild to severe illnesses, depending on the type and quantity of contaminant that was ingested. Some of the more serious health effects associated with food pollution can include cancer, hormonal and/or metabolic problems, nervous system toxicity and, in some rare cases, death.
Plastic Pollution in Food
In October of 2018, a small European study published their findings on 9 different plastic materials found in the feces of eight different participants. With an average of 20 microplastic particles found in each 10 grams of the participants’ feces, the most commonly found plastics included polypropylene and polyethylene terephtlate within the size range of 50 to 500 micrometers. With this data in mind, the researchers behind this study estimate that more than 50% of the global population will also have microplastic concentrates present within their stool.
While this study was the first to publish data on microplastics found in human stool, scientists have found microplastics in various other sample types that could easily make their way into our food products. For example, the presence of microplastics has already been found in soil, tap water, bottled water, beer and air samples in several different studies. With more than 330 million metric tons of plastic being produced each year, only 14% of which is collected for recycling purposes around the world, it is almost inevitable to expect the ability of these plastic particles to enter our food supply.
Agriculture, Air Pollution and Food
As the global population continues to rise at an alarmingly fast rate, the worldwide demand for agricultural output has unsurprisingly followed. In fact, between 1961 and 2014, it has been estimated that the world population increased by 136%, whereas the global production of grain and meat products rose by 188% and 345%, respectively. Increased agricultural demand has led farmers to depend more on the use of industrial agro-inputs, such as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and machinery to ensure adequate production numbers. This over-dependence on both fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers has inevitably led to an increase in air pollution.
The air pollution caused by the agricultural industry encompasses a greater amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, ammonia (NH3) emission and particulate matter that now circulates the atmosphere. As a result, toxic air pollutants like sulfates, nitrates, dusts and heavy metals can enter the food chain through diffusion, settling and precipitation. The contamination of these types of pollutants can not only affect plant growth and animal health but can also indirectly cause a negative impact to the food supply. For example, the frequent exposure of agricultural workers to chronic and oftentimes dangerously high levels of vehicle exhaust and pesticide residues can reduce their productivity and ultimately obstruct the food supply process.
There is no doubt that environmental pollution results in harmful effects to human, animal and ecological health. While the future of preventing contamination in our food supply may seem bleak, there are several ways in which the citizens of the world can combat this forecast. For example, several countries around the world including Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, have already introduced and passed legislation banning the manufacturing of cosmetic and personal care products that contain microbeads. The lawmakers in these nations are hopeful that this plastic microbead ban is one of the first steps that will end the spread of plastic pollution in both our water and food supplies.