According to new research, some of the rarest metals on the planet – used in the manufacture of smartphones and other electrical equipment – are increasingly found in everyday consumer plastics.
Scientists from the University of Plymouth and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign tested a range of new and used products, including children’s toys, office equipment and cosmetic containers.
Through a series of detailed assessments, they examined the levels of rare earth elements (REE), but also the amounts of bromine and antimony, which are used as flame retardants in electrical equipment and a sign of the presence of recycled electronic plastic.
The results showed that one or more REEs were found in 24 of the 31 products tested, including items where unregulated recycling is prohibited, such as disposable food packaging.
They are most commonly observed in samples containing bromine and antimony at levels insufficient to act as flame retardants, but have also been found in plastics in which these chemicals were not present.
Having also been found in marine plastics on the beach, the study’s authors suggest that there is evidence that REEs are ubiquitous and ubiquitous pollutants for both modern and historical plastics for consumers and the environment.
Study published in The science of the overall environment, is the first to systematically research the entire range of REEs in a wide range of consumer plastics.
Although previously found in a variety of environments – including groundwater, soil, and the atmosphere – the study shows widespread REE “plastisphere” contamination that does not appear to be associated with a single source or activity.
Dr Andrew Turner, an associate professor (reader) of environmental sciences at the University of Plymouth and lead author of the study, said: “Rare country elements have a number of critical applications in modern electronic equipment because of their magnetic, phosphorescent and electrochemical properties. are not intentionally added to plastics to serve any function, so their presence is more likely the result of accidental contamination during mechanical separation and processing of renewable components.
“The health effects resulting from chronic exposure to small amounts of these metals are unknown. But they are found at higher levels in food and tap water and certain drugs, meaning plastics are unlikely to represent a significant vector of exposure to the general population. However, they could indicate the presence of other known and better studied chemical additives and residues of concern. “
The research is the latest work of Dr. Turner who investigates the presence of toxic substances in everyday consumer products, marine litter and the wider environment.
In May 2018, it showed that dangerous chemicals such as bromine, antimony and lead find their way to objects that are in contact with food and other everyday products because manufacturers use recycled electrical equipment as a source of black plastic.
His work was part of the University’s successful application for the Queen’s Anniversary for Higher and Further Education for pioneering microplastic pollution research.
It also builds on previous work at the University, which saw scientists combine a smartphone to show the amounts of rare or so-called “conflicting” elements in each product.
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