5 Ways We Consume Microplastics (Without Trying!)
Photo source: Sara Scarpa on Unsplash
The adage that says, "trust your gut", well, what happens if that gut is laden with microplastics?
Yes, the shocking findings in recent studies suggest that plastic particles are making their way into our food, our water, and even the air we breathe.
We'll all need to digest this info, or else there could be major health impacts for all the plastic we inadvertently consume.
So, how many plastic particles go inside our bodies? One study found that we eat about a credit-card-size plastic in a week. And that's just from ingesting food and water, not including the plastic particles from the air.
What Microplastic Does Inside Our Bodies
In our previous article here, we've discussed how microplastics and nanoplastics find their way into our bodies. The latest finding about how plastic interacts with our human bodies, is by Dr. Dick Vethaak and his team at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Their study, funded by ZonMW Dutch health organization, found that plastic particles (both microplastics and nanoplastics) get absorbed and travel within the bloodstream.
In our discussion with (complete interview here), Dr. Verthaak, an ecotoxicologist studying microplastics since 2009, has shared that the past few years have confirmed that, "microplastics were found almost everywhere in the global biosphere." Because besides food and water, 2016 findings saw that fine dust air pollution also contains microplastics.
His team has confirmed that when testing blood, 17 out of 22 participants (77%) have plastic present in their bloodstream.
So we're exposed to plastic at all levels now, what happens?
Dr. Vethaak admits that while the fact that microplastics can enter the human body and stay in organs, there's still very limited information about the health effects.
Indeed, there's no conclusive finding to tie human exposure to microplastics and health impacts. He notes that there is still a big knowledge gap, but that people should be wary about having such foreign particles staying in the body.
But there are animal studies that indicate neurotoxic effects, developmental, and metabolic effects. For instance, this study found that microplastics caused mice higher death rate, damaged kidneys, and weight loss. And crucially, they found how plastic particles can damage animal tissue at a cellular level.
In another study, a research team from Trinity College Dublin found that plastic food containers shed large amounts of plastic. And so milk prepared in a bottle will most likely contain plastic microplastics that leach away from the bottle.
The same team learned that what's ingested usually gets naturally excreted by the body as well - like dust. But they are cognizant that the toxic nature of plastic could mean much more serious potential risk, than, say, sand we regularly inhale.
And perhaps a very timely subject is what Dr. Vethaak and his team are currently investigating. There's a hypothesis that "plastics and microplastics in the environment act as distinct reservoirs for human pathogens and antimicrobial resistance, contributing to the spread and outbreak of infectious diseases in susceptible communities."
In short, there's a likelihood that microplastics could be rendering us weaker against pathogens, like the latest, COVID-19. Dr. Vethaak and his team are currently researching the theory in two separate countries, with support from NGOs CommonSeas (UK) and Minderoo Foundation (Australia).
5 Ways We Consume Microplastics
With health effects yet to be confirmed (at least for humans), researchers assume that foreign matter such as microplastics potentially lean more towards being harmful than not.
So we want to discuss the most common ways how we consume microplastics. While there's no way to completely devoid our environment of plastic particles, there are ways to lessen exposure.
Because much of plastic waste end up in our marine systems, water is one of the most common ways we ingest microplastics. In a global drinking water study, OrbMedia found that 94% of water samples from the US contained microplastics, topping a list of 14 countries!
So what can we do? One is to invest in an RO filter at home. There are different options in the market to filter plastic particles out of your drinking water.
And of course, ditch the bottled water. Aside from creating single-use plastic waste, the container has microplastics that leach into the water.
Lastly, if you have a plastic kettle, change that into a glass, or stainless steel electric kettle. That way, there aren't any plastics that go into your hot cuppa.
Seafood may be high in micronutrients, but it's a fact that it contains microplastics. Again, due to the enormous plastic waste dumped in the oceans, marine life will inadvertently ingest these particles, and some stay lodged in their system.
Image source: Fernando Andrade on Unsplash
Limiting consumption of seafood could lessen the likelihood that the plastic particles that your shrimp, lobster, or fish has eaten will transfer to your gut.
As we've mentioned, microplastics are virtually everywhere, even in our homes! Dust particles that accumulate in our countertops, shelves, and other parts of the house contain plastic as well. And inhalation or ingestion of dust is among the major pathways to the human body.
In fact, one 2019 study observed that indoor dust had very high concentrations of PET-based microplastics. The likely sources of which are packaging and textile fibers. The researchers also cited findings that indoor dust makes people ingest higher levels of microplastics than sources like mussels or sea salt.
As a way to curb exposure to microplastics from indoor dust, Dr. Vethaak suggests making sure indoor spaces are well-ventilated, to keep particles from settling and accumulating inside the house or the office.
This comes as no surprise, as we now know that all types of plastic, be it PET or HDPE or whatever, can drain the tiniest nanoparticles into other materials. And so if you have food or drinks encased in plastic, they will most likely contain traces of microplastics.
But aside from obvious plastic packaging, take note that there's plastic coating in canned food and other carton packaging. Essentially, the more manufactured a food item is, the likelier it'll contain microplastics. So the more you can go plastic-free when it comes to food you buy, the better.
Personal Care Products
Microbeads are micro plastic particles used as cleansing or exfoliating agents in a variety of makeup and personal care products. Now, while you don't necessarily inhale or ingest makeup, close contact can still get microplastic into your system.
For instance, most toothpaste types on the market use microbeads - this is an easy avenue for ingesting the plastic. Lipstick, shower gels, nail polishes, and other personal care products that contain microbeads will likely be inhaled or ingested one way or another. As much as you can, avoid products that use microbeads.
Plastic Soup Foundation has an app, Beat the Microbead - a useful app for consumers that can tell you if a product contains microbeads or not.
Microplastic In Our Bodies: The Takeaway
While the jury's still out on how much microplastics and nanoplastics can impact our health, it's never too early to start transitioning into a plastic-free life. After all, when researchers have said again and again that we're to be wary of microplastics, we had better listen.
There are ways around these five modes of inhaling and ingesting microplastic we've shared here. Yes, it's going to be particularly challenging, especially when plastic is in the air! But, every small step could lessen exposure to these plastic particles.