Microplastics Pollution And Health
You likely use plastic every day. Just take a look around you right now and you’ll likely see a dozen plastic things: a plastic wrapper for your protein bar, plastic frames for your glasses and case for your cell phone are just a few examples. Daily we use plastic bottles, packaging, furniture, carpets, toothbrushes, paint, clothing and the list goes on.
Plastics have only been around for a hundred years and only in such large amounts since after World War 2. It takes so long for plastic (hundreds of years) to biodegrade that all plastic that has ever produced still exists. I find this staggering!
Of course plastic has allowed for innovation in medicine, transportation and other industries, but it also has taken a toll on the environment. Much of the plastic produced is for single or short-term use. Most plastic doesn’t get recycled (only about 9 percent does) and ends up in landfills, by the side of the road or in the ocean. Not only is it unsightly, but plastic pollution is also a huge global issue.
Plastic pollution has increased by 8.7% each year since the 1960s and Big Plastic is a $600 billion dollar global industry. We are learning more about the impacts of plastics and microplastics not only on the environment, but on human health as well. The two go hand in hand.
In this article, you will learn more about:
- What microplastics are
- Where microplastics are found
- How they impact human health
- And, what you can do about it
Let’s dive in!
What Are Microplastics?
Since plastic doesn’t readily break down in the environment, larger plastics simply break down into smaller and smaller pieces over time. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, microplastics include all types of plastics in pieces smaller than 5 millimeters, or about the size of a grain of rice. Microscopic plastic particles are called nanoplastics.
We’ve known about microplastics since articles were published in the 1970s about tiny pieces of plastics found in coastal waters, but the term microplastic is fairly recent. It is now estimated that 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, out of the more than 275 million metric tons produced annually. These figures are based on 2010 data from 192 coastal countries.
Once plastic is in the ocean or environment, it breaks down into smaller particles with sunlight and movement. A conservative estimate is that microplastics in the ocean total at least 5.25 trillion particles.
Although, some microplastics are intentionally produced such as the microbeads, found in body washes and toothpastes. Prior to their US ban in 2015, it was estimated that 8 billion microbeads entered the environment each day, and they are still there.
Microplastics are found around the globe in the water, air, soil and animals, even in very remote areas. This is the hidden cost of plastic production and use.
Where Are Microplastics Found?
In short, microplastics are everywhere. We are exposed directly through the air we breathe and the water we drink and indirectly as plastic particles and chemicals associated with plastic accumulate through the food chain.
Here are some of the most common places you’ll get exposed to microplastics:
- Water. Municipal water treatment plants weren’t designed for microplastic removal and although this issue is talked about and technology is being developed, it isn’t mandated. Currently, up to 93 percent of the water in the US is contaminated with microplastics. Bottled water is no exception and also a large source of microplastic exposure. Microplastics in water are also transferred to other products, such as beer. Plastic isn’t the only source of pollution in the water supply, I’ve recently written about algal blooms affecting our health.
- Salt. With all of the plastic pollution in the ocean it makes sense that that would find its way into the salt that we get from the ocean. In a study in China, plastic particles were found in sea salts, lake salts and rock salts, with sea salts being the highest. Likely the largest source of salt in the diet is from eating packaged, processed food.
- Fish and shellfish. Although microplastics are likely to be found in many, if not most, species, fish and shellfish are particularly vulnerable as plastic accumulates in their bodies through the food chain. In addition, plastic particles are often the same size as the food, such as plankton, that many small fish eat.
Microplastics Effects: How Do Microplastics Impact Human Health?
All in all, humans eat, drink and breathe more an estimated 74,000 to 121,000 particles of plastic per year. Although we don’t fully understand the implications of this plastic exposure and there are lots of holes in the research, there is cause for alarm.
Microplastics are used in medicine to deliver pharmaceuticals into human tissue so we know some about how they absorb into the body, move through the bloodstream and lymph system and accumulate in fat tissue and organs. In those who have plastic put into their body, such as a knee replacement, we know that the plastics wear down, releasing microplastics into circulation.
In addition to getting plastic in the body through eating and drinking, we know that nanoplastics can be inhaled and enter the lungs. One study found plastic in 83 percent of lung tissues examined.
Interesting research has been done on microplastic exposure in zebrafish. Studies show alterations to the microbiome, including changes to diversity and abundance of beneficial bacteria. The zebrafish showed changes in metabolic function, decreased glutathione, increased oxidative stress and inflammation. Humans aren’t zebrafish, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar effects in us.
In addition to the exposure of the plastic itself, plastic contains toxic ingredients, such as BPA, that act as estrogen mimickers, affect metabolism and reproduction and alter the immune system.
Microplastics can also absorb other toxins from the environment. Through microplastic exposure, you might become exposed to these chemicals or classes of chemicals:
- POPs – persistent organic pollutants including dioxin, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and other man-made chemicals or waste products of industry that have toxic effects for humans and don’t break down in the environment.
- PBDEs – polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or flame retardant chemicals found in furniture, clothing and children’s products.
- PAHs – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are naturally occurring toxins that form when coal, oil, gas, wood and other products are burned. PAHs attach to small particles in the air, such as microplastics.
- PFAS – per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances found in waterproof clothing, carpeting, food packaging and cookware are persistent in the environment and highly toxic to humans.
- Phthalates – and other endocrine disrupting chemicals are added to plastics to make the plastic softer. They are also frequently found in personal care products.
Although we don’t have a lot of data on the specific ways the microplastics are impacting humans, we know that the scope of the issue is profound and do have data linking the chemicals listed here to negative consequences to the environment and human health. The cumulative effect of all toxin exposures is likely staggering. On an individual level, I do see toxin exposure affecting a larger percentage of my patient population, causing overwhelm in the body’s detoxification systems and a host of symptoms and disease.
Action Steps – How To Avoid Microplastics
As a former engineer and medical doctor, I’m very data driven. However, I’m not going to wait for all of the data to be in in order to say that microplastics are significantly impacting humans. With so much plastic already in the environment (it will certainly outlive our children), I think it is important to stop plastic production and consumption in significant ways in order to prevent further effects.
Here are some things you can do:
1. Filter your water. Although most municipalities aren’t filtering water after treating it to the extent required to remove microplastics, many home filtration systems can. Drinking filtered water at home is preferable to bottled water for this reason. Quality water filters remove heavy metals, PFAS and other contaminants as well. You can read more about my water filter suggestions here.
2. Reduce your plastic use. While overall reduction in plastics is important on both the individual and global scales, be sure to pay special attention to the plastics that come in contact with food. I recommend using your own reusable produce bags, buying food in bulk or in paper packaging as much as possible and using glass for food storage. Never heat foods or drink hot liquids from plastic.
3. Reduce your toxin exposures elsewhere in your life in order to reduce your total body burden of chemicals. This might mean taking a look at your personal care products, upgrading your cleaning products, choosing organic foods, avoiding Teflon cookware and more. For more on this topic, check out my free guide: How to Be Safe in a Toxic World.
4. Rethink your wardrobe. A huge source of microplastics is from the breakdown of synthetic fibers, such as polyester (which is plastic!) from clothing. As you wash and dry your clothes, small particles enter the water and air. Choosing natural fiber clothes or washing your clothes with a filter or bag designed to capture microplastics helps.
5. Get involved. Join communities across the globe to clean up waterways and beaches from plastic pollution. Or start a movement in your area.
6. Think globally. By understanding the environmental and health impacts from plastics, we can work together to support a dramatic decrease in plastic production, much of which is single use plastic. Support bans on plastic bags and plastic bottles in your area and grab your favorite reusable tote and stainless steel or glass water bottle.
My hope is that this article helps you see the small changes that you can make to truly have a big impact. Although you won’t be able to fully eliminate all plastic exposure, you can reduce ingesting plastic – and associated chemicals – significantly by increasing your awareness and changing some daily habits. Your health will thank you.
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