An interview with Matt Simon, Wired journalist and author of A Poison Like No Other, a new book about the microplastic crisis that is threatening both human and planetary health.
Matt Simon is a long-time science journalist at Wired magazine where has covers biology, robotics and the environment. Simon is the author of A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies, a new book showcasing all the latest research on microplastics, tiny (usually less 0.5mm) plastic fragments that have been found in pregnant women’s placenta all the way to the Arctic Circle. From how ubiquitous they are in our air, water, and bodies to the links between them and a whole host of health issues, the book is an unflinching look at the sheer scale of the plastic problem. He talks to Green Queen’s Sonalie Figueiras about the most surprising learnings from his research, how Big Plastic is worse than Big Tobacco, and why’s so angry about cucumbers.
Editor’s Note: This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you start researching microplastics?
Matt Simon: I’ve been covering the issue for Wired with stories kind of here and there over the past couple of years. Then sitting around during the pandemic without anything to do I realized that nobody had put together a kind of state of the science on microplastics, like here’s what we know so far and these are the issues going forward. So I wanted to do a cohesive treatment of that. And I spent a lot of time on Zoom talking to 100 or so scientists who were kind enough to dedicate their time to me.
The book is really fascinating. You have a lot of facts in there, a lot of very scary and worrying facts. What would you say is the most surprising thing that you uncovered during all your research?
Matt Simon: There’s a lot to choose from…I think it would be around microplastics in the air. I had done some previous reporting on where it is in the atmosphere, and [it is] absolutely everywhere in the atmosphere, as it turns out. But in recent years, scientists have been putting together some really interesting modeling, showing exactly the path that it’s taking, [for example] blowing out of Europe and into the Arctic and falling out of the sky into remote rainforests, and things like that. I think one of the craziest figures in the book was this, this calculation that I have in the intro where I hike up a mountain to see this plastic catcher that actually catches someone’s stuff that’s falling out of sky. And the scientist’s calculation was something like 300 million bottles of plastic fall out of the sky as microplastic each year in just 6% of the land mass of the United States. So scale it up and it’s billions upon billions of bottles of plastic falling out of the sky across the United States as these little tiny bits.
And then also, in recent years, there’s been more research on indoor air. So we know it’s in the outdoor air. But what about indoor air, when we are absolutely surrounded by plastic and all forms? So carpeting, but also hardwood floors are now made of plastic, clothing- two-thirds of textiles are made out of plastic…It is absolutely everywhere. And I think the most surprising thing to me was just how saturated indoor air and outdoor air have become with this stuff.
One of the big arguments from Big Oil/Big Plastic is that while there’s plastic in our bodies, it’s not a big deal, and it’s not doing us any harm. How worried are you about the health impact of microplastics?
Matt Simon: That’s where I tried to get a lot of the new ones [studies] in the book, which is that scientists just realized how much of the stuff is in our bodies. And they’re now having to say: ‘Okay, well, we know for certain that none of this stuff is good to have in our bodies. Obviously, in the lungs, in particular, no particulate matter is good for your lung.’ But we will see in probably, I think, the next five or 10 years, some really good studies that tie specific human ailments to microplastic exposure because there are a lot of chemicals in these plastics that are proven detrimental to human health. Especially, I’m sure you’re aware, aware of the endocrine-disrupting chemicals, EDCs, that do really terrible things to our homegrown systems. That is especially concerning for children. So they’re finding particles in placentas, and we know that mothers are passing these particles to their babies in utero. The scary thing about these EDCs is their dosing is very strange- you can have a very small amount of it and it’s quite toxic. And then that drops off for a medium size [exposure] to then picks up again, really high doses. So it’s like this weird curve, in that it’s not like a usual poison.
‘Drops off’- what do you mean by that?
Matt Simon: So on a graph, if you plot the toxicity, at a very low dose you actually get a lot of toxicity. As that dose goes up, the toxicity starts to go down and you’re at that middle range of the exposure. But the more you’re exposed to it, the toxicity comes back up. So at a high exposure to a lot of these EDCs, you get a lot of detrimental effects, which is different from typical poisons, as we know that usually, the dose makes the poison. So I think that’s particularly concerning from the human health aspect because the plastics industry will say ‘Okay, well, these are tiny particles, they’re in our body, so what? But you don’t need a lot of this stuff to have an effect. And I think that the huge concern here is with children, in particular toddlers, who are crawling around on the floor where a lot of these particles are settling, or inhaling a lot of this stuff. And their bodies are just much smaller than ours, and they can’t handle that kind of poison going into their system.
I think in five to 10 years we will get much better studies. But for now, scientists are catching up. And we have had this stuff in our bodies for decades now. And now we need a bunch of funding for the studies that are going to take a while…it takes time [and] it takes money to really prove these links between microplastics. And these elements, I’m pretty sure that they all come because we’re finding these particles in every organ in our blood, even breast milk. It’s absolutely everywhere. And there’s just no reality in which that’s a good thing to have in our bodies.
How similar do you think Big Oil is here to Big Tobacco? And how much do you think they know? We now know that Big Oil knew about climate change decades ago. Big Tobacco knew about cancer much earlier on than the mass public. Do you see a similar thing here?
Matt Simon: I think in a lot of ways it will be worse than smoking because babies don’t smoke, right? And babies are the ones that are getting dosed with microplastics the most because they’re the ones crawling around on the floor. Back in the day, adults were smoking and we knew for a very long time that yeah, it’s, it’s bad for human health. And of course, the tobacco industry, suppressed that…but it was also it was a choice to smoke, right? But we have no choice but to be exposed to all these particles, especially children who are exposed to microplastics before they’re born. That is not a choice that they’re making. They haven’t shown these proven links between microplastics and human ailments. But I think once they do, we will look back, or I guess our descendants will look back, on this time in human history just in astonishment and embarrassment that we let the plastics industry poison us with this stuff for decades.
[The industry] is increasing production of plastics, because they know that we’re going to decarbonize our economy, get off of fossil fuels…[they want us to] use fossil fuels instead as plastic, that’s the revenue going forward. And we cannot let it get out of control even more than it has already, we have to put our foot down. Because we don’t have to wait for these studies that show these links between the elements. We know for sure, it’s not a good thing. And we need much more money going to that research. And Europe is actually leading the way here, the US is significantly behind on this, largely because in the US our politicians and our universities are also entrenched with fossil fuel interest. Not as much in Europe, but we need way more money on this because children, in particular, that’s my big concern here.
Throughout your book, there seems to be this message that regulation is really the only way here. Would you agree with that assessment?
Matt Simon: For sure. In the book, I go into some detail about these smaller measures, like filters on washing machines. Every washing machine needs to have one pre-installed going forward. The burden should not be on us as consumers to install aftermarket ones. They should be coming in every machine.
Yes, there’s the Guppyfriend washing bag too. But that’s still a burden on us as consumers. That’s not a regulation.
Matt Simon: Right. Yeah. And that’s what I tried to make very clear in the book: we didn’t poison the planet with microplastics. This is not our fault. It’s not your fault that you’re wearing yoga pants or stretchy socks or any number of articles of clothing made out of plastic because that was what was pushed on us. And I don’t think a lot of people realized until recently, that our clothes are made out of plastic and that these microfibers are washing into the environment in these astonishing numbers. So when you talk to a microplastics researcher or plastics advocacy group, they will tell you: we need to go as far upstream as possible here as we can.
The burden should be first and foremost on the plastics industry to stop producing so much plastic. At the end of the day, that’s the only way out because there are so many avenues for microplastics, and macro plastics as well, to get into the environment. There’s just there’s no stopping it entirely unless we majorly cut back on plastics production, especially single-use plastics. I’m not saying that there won’t be uses for plastics going forward, for example, medical devices and things like that. But it’s insane that we have vegetables like cucumbers wrapped in single-use plastic because they have their own skins. That’s madness. And again, our descendants will look back on this time in astonishment at what we’ve done. We’re wrapping everything around us in a proven toxin.
And we’re now just realizing, oh, all that macro plastic, the bottles and the bags and the wrappings and things like that, all the while it was was shedding little bits of itself for us to inhale and eat and drink. What have we done?
It’s a grand experiment that was kind of pushed on us. And I will say, less of an experiment and more of a capitalist money grab. These are corporations that are legally obligated to their shareholders to maximize profit and destroy the environment in that way. They’re legally obligated. And that’s a crazy construct to have in 2022.
As you pointed out, in the United States, politics and Big Oil are in bed together. And if we’re moving to renewables, and we need to reduce plastics, what happens to Big Oil? I’m not sure I see a path forward toward increased regulation when most of the Republican Party is being backed by Big Oil. They’re even paying for local newspapers at this point.
Matt Simon: Yeah, it’s daunting, and I think they’re there. I know that there is a movement right now on an international treaty for reducing plastic production. We are up against some of the most powerful, richest corporations on the planet who do this because they can, because in the United States, they buy politicians. So as I say in the book, we need to elect people who realize that plastics and climate change are two sides of the same coin. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to produce plastic. Plastic is made out of fossil fuel. Once it escapes into the environment, it releases little tiny particles in exponential form, which then releases gases like methane, which is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, and it’s all floating around out there. And scientists are just beginning to reckon with that. Maybe that is a pretty big contributor to climate change. If the industry has its way, it’s going to keep producing all this stuff. And it takes energy to produce it in the first place. But at the end of its life, when it’s floating around out there, it’s still producing greenhouse gases.
The crazy thing about plastics is the industry is not required to tell us what’s in it. So it’s up to chemists to reverse engineer these things to find out what chemicals are on them. And yet, we are literally wrapping ourselves in this stuff.
We need politicians that understand that this [the climate crisis and microplastics] is linked, that if we don’t make the industry pump the brakes, they’re going to transition from fossil fuels as fuels to more fossil fuels as plastics. We can’t let that happen.
Do you think that the health argument is going to motivate consumers? Do we need a group of angry moms like what happened with alcohol and drunk driving? People usually become more eco-conscious when they have children. So where is the anger? Where’s the angry mom plastic mob?
Matt Simon: That’s what I say explicitly in the book, I want people to be angry about this. I apologize in the book to all the psychiatrists out there that are gonna have to deal with this. And maybe it’s not a healthy thing to get angry like this. But we need that anger to make that individual behavioral change more impactful. So it’s great that as a consumer, you can put a filter on your washing machine and use fewer plastic bags, and take any steps you can to stop surrounding yourself with so much plastic. But you need individual action on a much larger scale. And I think that’s where anti-plastics groups are making a lot of headway- consumers are realizing just how thoroughly corrupted our planet has become with plastics. We should make this more of a people-led movement, because we’re the ones who are going to be suffering at the hands of these really psychopathic corporations that only care about making money and in the process, destroying the planet.
Do you feel that other businesses such as food businesses and consumer goods businesses are aware of how bad the plastic problem is?
Matt Simon: They don’t care. I mean, it’s about profit for them. It’s just a margin thing. So if they’re able to wrap things in single-use plastic, it’s a much cheaper way to ship things, it’s lighter, it just takes less energy to move it around. I think glass is going to be very important going forward just because it’s much easier to recycle glass, but then we have to consider, well, that’s going to add some weight to shipping. But also just getting more creative: markets in Asia are wrapping things in banana leaves, like why can’t we do more of that elsewhere? Why does everything have to be plastic? It’s always because it’s much more profitable for the industry and these food companies to do so. And I think again, like the next five to 10 years once we get these studies that really link the plastics and the chemicals in plastics to these human health effects, people will look at something like food wrapped in single-use plastic and say: this is madness. It’s full-tilt insane to me that in 2022 we are wrapping vegetables like cucumbers in single-use plastic.
Why the book is maybe a little bit dense on facts is that we need to get across the scale of this problem, not only just how corrupted our indoor spaces are with microplastics, but how every corner of the environment is now covered with microplastics and nanoplastics. Because we let the industry just do whatever it wanted. Again, we need politicians that pump the brakes on that.
Where do you stand on plastics recycling? Should we be doing more of it?
Matt Simon: I tried to explain in the book why recycling has been so problematic, historically, why it has just been much cheaper for these companies to produce virgin plastic than it is for us to recycle things. And, you know, in the United States, recycling has been a for-profit system when it should have always been massive taxes on the companies producing the plastic to fund recycling. But also when you look back at the beginning of recycling in the United States, it was these plastics companies that were selling the concept of recycling, which just allowed them to produce more of this stuff without consequence. So that’s why I say, at the end of the day, there’s no substitute for just reducing our dependence on plastic by massively cutting back on production.
I do think going forward, there’s going to be room for reuse of certain plastics for a number of different reasons. It’s just very difficult to remove plastics from our society.
I’m hesitant to even say we should be reusing things. There’s a circular economy that could be potentially there in the future. But I also think that there are going to be more and more studies showing that any kind of plastic in contact with anything that we’re putting on our bodies is going to be bad in the bucket. And that’s why I’m saying recycling is not going to save us, especially with microplastics.
Why are microplastics ‘a poison like no other’?
Matt Simon: There’s a number of reasons I call it a poison like no other. It’s this super strange pollutant, in that it’s a physical thing in the environment. So it’s not like mercury, which is an element that kind of diffuses out. If you have these little pieces of plastic in soil, they change the properties of that soil, they make the water move through it differently. Also, when you think about this stuff on beaches, I talked about a study in the book where having microplastics on a beach significantly raises the temperature of the sand. It’s just like this physical poison. I had someone in an interview last week call it an alien substance that has fallen onto Earth, and we just don’t know what to do with it because it is a physical pollutant that has gotten into every corner of the environment. This is madness, it’s crazy.
A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies by Matt Simon is published by Island Press ($30).
Lead image courtesy of Matt Simon.