Tiny “microplastic” fragments and fibres in the environment probably don’t hurt humans, federal officials say, but it’s time to study them and be sure.

Health Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada are planning to offer $2.2 million in funding over two years for research on the effects of plastic on humans and also wildlife.

We already understand the effects of big plastic pieces such as bottles and shopping bags, they said Thursday in a technical briefing for reporters. These can choke birds, turtles and other wildlife, or fill their stomachs so that they cannot eat food.

But there are unknowns about tiny pieces, including the fibres from clothes and upholstery made of polyester, acrylic and other synthetic materials. Microplastics are defined as bits less than five millimetres long.

On Thursday, the two departments jointly announced a draft science assessment of plastic pollution, including the funding details. It will go through 60 days of public comment before it’s official.

The effect of breathing in plastic fibre has not been tested at levels that affect ordinary people, officials said. The only studies are on industrial workers exposed to concentrated levels, or rodents that are also exposed to levels far above what se experience in daily life.

“There really is no indication” that microplastics harm people, they said, but the studies should be done out of “an abundance of caution.”

The draft assessment also summarizes how much plastic is going into our environment, and where. It says:

• When we dispose of old plastic, 86 per cent goes to garbage dumps. Nine per cent is recycled and four per cent is burned for energy. Only one per cent escapes into the environment — but that still adds up to 29,000 tonnes a year.

• About one-third of Canada’s plastic is used in packaging.

• Tiny pieces go everywhere, including into the soil and water — rivers, lakes and oceans. Some ends up in our drinking water. Much of it washes up on shorelines.

But the fine print in the draft science assessment shows that the picture isn’t always simple.

For instance, the assessment shows that the Great Lakes are one of the areas affected by the pollution — but it varies tremendously from one area to another.

In surveys of the shoreline of Lake Huron — which stretches more than 6,000 kilometres — scientists found the plastic waste was heavily concentrated on a single beach in Sarnia, and most of that plastic was in pellet form. Petrochemical factories near Sarnia make plastic in pellets which are shipped to manufacturers who turn the material into finished products.

The Liberal government has announced it wants to ban single-use plastics, which are widely blamed for much of the thrown-away plastic.

Read the full and original article at OttawaCitizen.com