A recent study conducted by the Environment Agency Austria estimates that more than half of the world population may harbor microplastics in their stools. Now, that is some seriously concerning information. Not only are microplastics being found in our waterways and seafood, but they’re found in the air we breathe and now researchers are showing it’s even raining plastics!
Why are microplastics bad? Researchers say that once microplastics get into the human body and begin circulating, they can endanger health. Specifically, microplastics may negatively impact the human immune system, digestive system and more.
And microplastics aren’t just affecting human health; they are also impacting the environment in major negative ways. By the year 2050, the World Economic Forum estimates that the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish. The presence of microplastics in the ocean is not just a concern for the environment, because we now know that we’re consuming fish that contain microplastics! Plus, microplastic is effecting non-marine environments majorly as well.
What Are Microplastics?
Before we get to microplastic, where does plastic come from in general? Plastic is a material that consists of various synthetic compounds (like petrochemicals) and semi-synthetic organic compounds (like polylactic acid from corn). Plastics are generally easy to manufacture, inexpensive to make and versatile. You can mold plastic into almost any shape, which is why you see it so prevalently in food and drink containers, toys, wiring, cars and more.
What are microplastics? Microplastics definition: tiny pieces of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters in size. They can disintegrate from larger pieces of plastic or you can find them in products like exfoliants, food containers and even clothing. How are microplastics created? Although plastics do not readily biodegrade, they will break up into smaller pieces when exposed to ultraviolet light and physical abrasion. For example: when larger plastic bottles end up in ocean waters and are then continually exposed to sunlight, they will begin to breakdown.
What do microplastics do? Once in the ocean, microplastics move with currents, wave action and wind conditions and can be found throughout all areas of a marine ecosystem. When plastic particles become smaller and turn into tiny microplastics, they can then easily be consumed by wildlife, which is a huge problem in our waterways today.
There are five main types of microplastics, including:
- Fibers: Fibers come from things like diapers, fleece clothing and cigarette butts, and one of the ways that microfibers get into our waterways is through our washing machines. Unlike clothing materials like cotton or wool, fleece microfibers are not biodegradable.
- Microbeads: These non-biodegradable plastic particles measure less than one millimeter in diameter, and you can find them in facial cleansers, exfoliating products and even toothpaste. Fish and other marine life often mistake microbeads for food, which is a big problem since plastic is not digestible. When eaten, it then clogs their intestines, possibly leading to starvation and death.
- Fragments: These are smaller pieces of plastic that break off from larger pieces and then UV radiation from the sun breaks them down into even smaller pieces. Examples of fragments include pieces of cutlery, lids or single-use items like water bottles.
- Nurdles: Nurdles are small plastic pellets used to manufacture plastic goods. Due to their small size, they sometimes spill out of transportation vehicles during delivery and then can end up in storm drains before ultimately emptying into a nearby waterway. Just like fragments and microbeads, fish and other marine life can mistake nurdles for food.
- Foam: You can find styrofoam in things like coffee cups and food containers. Its chemicals can leach into food and beverages. Reheating food in a styrofoam makes the risk of toxic exposure for humans even greater. Just like fragments, styrofoam breaks down into smaller pieces.
According to a 2018 scientific review titled “Microplastics in Seafood and the Implications for Human Health,” “Since the 1960s, plastic production has increased by approximately 8.7 percent annually, evolving into a $600 billion global industry. Approximately eight million metric tons of plastics enter the oceans annually, and conservative estimates suggest 5.25 trillion plastic particles currently circulate in ocean surface waters. While some plastics enter oceans from maritime operations, 80 percent is suspected to originate from land-based sources.”
Unfortunately, it’s now well-known and well-documented that animals, including fish, mussels, plankton, corals, seabirds and sea turtles, are ingesting microplastics. When organisms like plankton and mussels consume these plastics, this can likely affect an entire ecosystem since they are found at the base of the food web.
Top 5 Dangers of Microplastics
1. Toxicity in Human Gut, Lung, Liver and Brain Cells
The same scientific review published in 2018 took a look at the evidence to date of human exposure to microplastics via seafood consumption and unwanted health effects that may result. Microplastics can come from larger plastics that break down and in that same fashion, microplastics can break down even smaller into nanoplastics.
According to the review, “Following oral exposure, nanoplastics are transported by M cells, specialized epithelial cells of the mucosa, from the gut into the blood where they are carried through the lymphatic system and into the liver and gall bladder.” Because of their tiny size and hydrophobicity (not combining with water), nanoplastics are able to pass through the placenta and blood-brain barrier into the gastrointestinal tract and lungs, which are then two potential areas for harm to occur in the human body. So far, research studies have demonstrated toxicity in vitro to lung cells, liver and brain cells.
Another 2017 study in Scientific Reports starts off by pointing out that you can now find microplastics in oceans, rivers, sediments, sewages, soil and even table salts. Talk about microplastic being all around us! This recent research study confirms that depending on particle size, microplastics (MPs) can accumulate in at least three tissues based on mice subjects: the liver, kidney and gut. In addition, the build up of MPs caused several effects on biochemical biomarkers and metabolomic profiles, which demonstrates the potential health risk to mammals. Overall, the researchers concluded that based on a comprehensive analysis, there is evidence to suggest that exposure to MPs may cause disruptions to energy and fat metabolism, health hazardous oxidative stress and neurotoxic responses, which are responses that are poisonous or destructive to nerve tissue.
2. Major Potential Negative Effects On Gut, Heart, Lung and Reproductive Health
Experts believe that we can look at the potential health risks of microplastics, which can turn into nanoplastics, similar to those of engineered nanoparticles. What do we know about the effect of such particles to date?
According to “Microplastics in Seafood and the Implications for Human Health,” oral exposure and bodily accumulation of nanoparticles has been shown to have numerous health effects on the following:
- Cardiopulmonary responses (can include heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, etc.)
- Alterations of endogenous metabolites (the intermediate and final products of metabolism in the body)
- Genotoxicity (a destructive effect on a cell’s genetic material, including DNA and RNA)
- Inflammatory responses
- Oxidative stress (an imbalance between the production of free radicals (disease-causing) and the antioxidant system, which is in charge of maintaining homeostasis)
- Nutrient absorption
- Gut microflora/gut bacteria
3. Damage to Marine Wildlife Health and Biodiversity
The presence of microplastics in waterways is a major problem that will only likely become worse as time goes on. How do microplastics harm the environment? Microplastics in the ocean and other bodies of water have a direct impact on these ecosystems, because the animals that live in these waters are ingesting them. If an animal is at the bottom of the food chain, they can easily spread that plastic up the chain just as we’re seeing humans consuming plastics via their consumption of seafood.
According to a scientific article published in 2018 in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe, plastics are known to take hundreds of years to break down, but larger plastics can turn into micro- and nanoplastics much faster. The article highlights how “chronic exposure simply to the physical presence of microplastics has been linked to effects on populations, including the negative influence of micro- and nanoplastics on survival and mortality of different species of zooplankton, which represent a critical energy source in the marine environment.”
Another concern with plastics and the environment is the fact that many plastics contain known or suspected endocrine-disrupting chemical additives and/or contaminants. Experimental research on animals demonstrates how that low-level exposures to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCS) can lead to both temporary and permanent changes to their endocrine systems. EDCs can also mimic, compete with or disrupt the synthesis of hormones, which can lead to impaired reproduction and consequently low birth rates as well as inferior thyroid function and an increased incidence and progression of hormone-sensitive cancers.
4. Negative Impact on Terrestrial Ecosystems
Microplastics pollution is affecting land environments too. A 2018 article published in Global Change Biology points out the hazards of plastics on terrestrial ecosystems including tundra, taiga, temperate deciduous forest, tropical rain forest, grassland and deserts.
This recent article points out there is growing scientific evidence showing that “microplastics interact with terrestrial organisms that mediate essential ecosystem services and functions, such as soil dwelling invertebrates, terrestrial fungi and plant-pollinators.” Research will continue because it seems pretty clear that microplastics are going to continue to have a negative impact on land environments as they have on marine environments.
5. Drinking Water Contamination
As many people know, tap water toxicity is a concerning health issue in the United States and around the globe. Are microplastics in drinking water? Sadly, plastics are present in drinking water today. According to one investigation, 83 percent of water test samples from major metropolitan areas around the world have plastic fiber contamination.
Many people turn to bottled water thinking it’s a safer choice, but in 2018 the World Health Organization (WHO) announced a review into the possible risks of plastic in drinking water after an analysis of some of the world’s top bottled water brands revealed that more than 90 percent of them contained tiny pieces of plastic. This analysis specifically reveals that plastic fibers were in 11 of the world’s largest bottle water brands from 19 locations in nine countries. Of these samples, 93 percent of the bottled water tested showed some sign of microplastic contamination, including polypropylene, nylon and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
Where They Come From
Where does plastic come from? Plastic comes from a large variety of items including food packaging, toys, wiring, cars and more. Plastics can end up in the environment either as large pieces, macroplastics, microplastics or nanoplastics.
Where do microplastics come from? Sources of microplastics include larger pieces of plastic that break down into smaller pieces. Microbeads are another type of microplastic. Microbreads are very tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic that get added as exfoliants to health and beauty products like toothpastes and cleansers. These microbeads easily pass through water filtration systems and can end up in the ocean and other bodies of water where they have a destructive affect on marine life.
Microplastic can contain environmental and health hazardous chemicals. Microplastics found in the ocean can accumulate persistent organic pollutants (POPs), including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and organochlorine pesticides like dichlorodiphynyltrichloroethane (DDT) or hexachlorobenzene (HCB) from the water. As stated in “Microplastics in Seafood and the Implications for Human Health,” plastic attracts POPs more than the water which results in microplastics containing even higher concentrations of POPs than the water that surrounds them.
Where They Are Hiding
You may not see them, but according to research published in April 2019, microplastics are even circulating in the air these days! In a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience, French researchers report that thousands of microplastic particles were found in the atmosphere of a pristine mountain region of France (the Pyrenees).
This study shows that microplastics can apparently travel through the air very long distances of at least 60 miles (or 95 kilometers). So even if you’re not living in a highly populated area, like a city, this research suggests that tiny microplastics can “reach and affect remote, sparsely inhabited areas through atmospheric transport.”
In 2019, researchers also found plastics in over 90 percent of rain samples collected at various areas in the state of Colorado. The conclusion of the study is that while better sampling and identification methods are needed for future research, one thing is clear: It is raining plastics.
Where else could these microplastics be hiding? Within fish and shellfish themselves! In 2018, news outlets featured this fact with news headlines like “Hong Kong’s fish are eating plastic — and people could be too.” According to researchers, fish are ingesting microplastics which then end up in humans through seafood consumption. One group of researchers found 80 pieces of plastic in just one single fish.
Hard to believe? A 2016 UN report documented over 800 animal species contaminated with plastic via ingestion or entanglement. This number is 69 percent greater than a 1977 review that estimated 247 contaminated species at the time.
Would you believe that microplastic may be hiding in your salt shaker too? It’s scary yet true! A study published in 2017 in Scientific Reports takes a look at the presence of microplastic in commercial salts from several countries. The study notes, “the increasing trend of plastic use and disposal, however, might lead to the gradual accumulation of MPs in the oceans and lakes and, therefore, in products from the aquatic environments. This should necessitate the regular quantification and characterization of MPs in various sea products.”
In other words, producers of salt, seaweed and other items derived from the sea should be checking their microplastic content before they sell their products to consumers.
How to Avoid Microplastics
Avoiding microplastics today can definitely be challenging. One way to avoid them is to be particular about the water you drink. Do filters remove microplastics? Some options that should remove microplastics include carbon filters and reverse osmosis systems.
Some carbon/activated carbon filters can remove asbestos, chlorine, lead, mercury and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). But carbon filters cannot remove arsenic, fluoride, nitrate or percholate. Filters also vary greatly by manufacturer and some may only remove chlorine.
Reverse osmosis filters can trap any molecule bigger than water. They are typically more effective than carbon filters since they can remove fluoride. A reverse osmosis filter is my personal recommendation.
You can also avoid microplastics by not drinking from plastic water bottles, avoiding styrofoam and staying away from any products that contain microbeads. Of course, not polluting is a huge way to stop microplastics from ending up in our environment.
- Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters in size.
- Microplastics can be found in seafood, salt, cosmetic products, clothing, food containers and more.
- Known and potential microplastic effects on the environment, animals and humans are highly concerning and include permanent unwanted changes.
- As microplastic accumulates in bodies of water, it’s also being shown to accumulate in human gut, lung, liver and brain cells, where it can then potentially affect major systems and functions in the body.
- It’s estimated that over half of the world population may have microplastics in their stools and that by the year 2050, the world’s oceans will be filled with more plastic than fish.
- Researchers have found microplastics in bottled water and tap water, so finding a water filtration that helps you to avoid microplastics is a smart investment for your health. I recommend a reverse osmosis system.
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