Plastics are omnipresent in our daily lives. They offer convenience, flexibility, and are a lighter-weight alternative to other materials. What you may not realize is that plastic of any kind is not an especially stable substance.
A new meta-analysis of twenty-six studies into the “Human Consumption of Microplastics” reported on the actual amounts a typical human ingests through various means. The results are shocking:
- depending on age and sex, it’s estimated that annual microplastic ingestion through various means is 74,000-121,000 particles
- if you drink water bottled in plastic, those particle numbers jump by an additional 90,000
- “given methodological and data limitations, these values are likely underestimates” (1)
What are microplastics?
The amount of plastic you consume comes from not only direct contact but in the food you eat, especially packaged foods, sea salt, and fish. (3, 4) The foods specifically tested in the most recent study are water, beer, honey, seafood, salt, and sugar. Microplastics were found in all of these common food items.
While the long-term effects of the ingestion of plastics are yet to be determined, the dangers to human health can be easily assumed:
- if eaten or inhaled, microplastics may accumulate in the body and cause an immune system response
- the toxic chemicals used in plastics can work on human cells and processes
- chronic exposure can have a cumulative negative effect (5)
“Evidence is also growing for direct impacts of microplastic ingestion on physiology, reproductive success and survival of exposed marine organisms…The potential for humans, as top predators, to consume microplastics as contaminants in seafood is very real, and its implications for health need to be considered…Despite the existence of considerable uncertainties and unknowns, there is already a compelling case for urgent actions to identify, control, and, where possible, eliminate key sources of both primary and secondary microplastics before they reach the marine environment.” (6)
The Center for International Environmental Law published the comprehensive report Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet in February 2019. Its succinct conclusion:
“Despite being one of the most pervasive materials on the planet, plastic and its impact on human health is poorly understood…Research into the human health impacts of plastic to date have focused narrowly on specific moments in the plastic lifecycle, from wellhead to refinery, from store shelves to human bodies, and from disposal to ongoing impacts as air pollutants and ocean plastic. Individually, each stage of the plastic lifecycle poses significant risks to human health. Together, the lifecycle impacts of plastic paint an unequivocally toxic picture: plastic threatens human health on a global scale.” (7)
Plastic Bottled Water
The World Health Organization announced in 2018 that it would launch a review of the potential risks of drinking water from plastic bottles as the result of mounting evidence of the pervasiveness of microplastics in water brands from many different countries. (8) The most common plastic used to make water bottles is polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE, #1). In fact, not only does it leach into the water but its permeability makes it a haven for potentially harmful bacteria. Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors and have been linked to various human illnesses—they are especially harmful to children.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regularly monitors the effects of various chemicals on humans; its 2019 “National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals” provides information on various chemicals (including plastic polymers) found in humans through widespread exposure. We strongly recommend you take a look to educate yourself on some of the toxins with which you come into contact and their health implications. (9)
As with any disturbing study, the most recent is not without its detractors.
Prominent scientists have spoken out about the findings of the study on our consumption of microplastics. Following are excerpts from the reviews of three experts from the United Kingdom.
Professor Richard Lampitt of the Microplastic Research Team at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton generally praised the study but withheld his whole-hearted endorsement:
“My major criticism of this paper (and many others) is that there is no definition of the term microplastics. Specifically; the measure of abundance is highly dependent on the lower size boundary selected (1, 10 or 100 micron) and to a lesser degree on the upper boundary (1mm or 5mm).”
Professor of Ecology Alastair Grant of the University of East Anglia questions the study’s evidence:
“No evidence is presented that these rates of consumption are a significant danger to human health…The figure for inhalation is calculated by multiplying particle concentrations in air by daily respiration rates but does not take into account the systems that our bodies have to remove particles from the air that we breathe.”
Dr. Stephanie Wright, Research Associate at King’s College of London, asks that microplastic consumption be compared to other toxic substances in food:
“Some of the included studies should be interpreted with caution, especially those which only rely on visual means to identify microplastics. Size is an important parameter when considering the implications of (any) particle exposure. Without this information, it is difficult to interpret the current findings…These current estimates suggest microplastic exposure is relatively low compared to other particles [such as titanium dioxide].” (10)
It’s important to note that, regardless of the criticism, no one has suggested that the research was flawed or deny that humans ingest a significant amount of plastic on a regular basis.
How to Avoid Plastic
It may be impossible to completely avoid exposure to plastic but there are many things you can do to minimize ingesting it and contributing to the “current approaches to [plastic] production, use and disposal [which] are not sustainable and present concerns for wildlife and human health”. (11)
- Use glass, stainless steel, wood, ceramics, and enameled cast iron for cooking, serving, eating, and storing food and water.
- Make your own mascara.
- Use K-cups made from stainless steel or other non-plastic, re-usable material.
- Don’t use toothpaste with “microbeads”—they’re made of plastic. This product has been banned in some places because of the dangers to marine life. Dentists don’t like it, either.
- Use natural personal care products, including cosmetics and perfume.
- Choose foods packaged in glass or paper rather than plastic. Look for “BPA-free” on cans.
- Click here for ways to remove plastic from your body.