Over the last several decades, the world has been dominated by plastic use. More recently, the increasing presence of microplastics in our environment is starting to raise both concerns and questions. Are microplastics a threat to both our environment and our human health?
These minuscule plastic particles measure less than 5 millimeters and find their way into every corner of our planet. From the deepest oceans and tallest mountains and even into the air we breathe, microplastics are everywhere.
As we grapple with the consequences of plastic pollution, it is necessary to explore the potential impact of microplastics on human health.
This blog article dives into the topic of microplastics, its sources, pathways of exposure, and potential health consequences associated with microplastics.
📌 Key Takeaways
- Microplastics can be found everywhere.
- Humans are exposed to microplastics everyday and thousands of particles each year.
- Currently, there is limited human research that demonstrates microplastic exposure is associated with negative health effects.
- More large scale epidemiological studies are necessary to determine if there are negative health effects associated with microplastic exposure.
Table of Contents
🚱 Sources of Microplastics
Microplastics originate from many different sources of plastic.
Plastic packaging is one of the most obvious sources. The disposal of plastic packaging materials also contributes to plastic waste and microplastic pollution. Over time, these plastic materials degrade into plastic fragments called “microplastics”.
Aside from plastic packaging, even large plastic water bottles may break down over time due to weathering processes like sunlight. When these larger plastics are fragmented, this results in smaller plastic particles.
In addition, clothing materials such as nylon or polyester may also release microplastics into waste water during the washing process.
🔎 Pathways of Exposure to Humans
We are exposed to microplastics on a daily basis. This can occur through oral intake, inhalation, and skin contact.
As mentioned above, microplastics are nearly everywhere including our drinking water, salt, sugar, milk and other food products. When we eat or drink these products we are simultaneously consuming microplastics, without even realizing it.
It is estimated that humans consume anywhere from 39000 to 52000 microplastic particles each year.
One thing to look out for is takeout food packaging. This is because it is made from plastic polymers. which is a type of plastic is commonly found to have microplastics.
Those who purchase takeout food frequently may have a higher exposure to microplastics for this reason.
Aside from consuming microplastics, human exposure may also occur through inhalation when some of these plastics become airborne particles.
In fact there are some studies that have shown microplastics present in human lung tissue.
The largest amount of microplastics in the atmosphere come from the road (about 84%).
When we take into consideration both oral intake and inhalation of microplastics, humans are exposed to about 74,000 to 121,000 particles each year.
Many personal care products such as facial cleansers may contain microplastics which increase exposure via skin contact.
In addition, phone cases may produce microplastics after continuous use, coming into contact with your hands when you use it. Children also may come into contact with microplastics when crawling on the ground or playing with their plastic toys.
Due to the magnitude in which humans and animals are exposed to microplastics everyday, it is important to understand the potential health implications on humans.
🩺 Health Impacts on Humans
The potential health impacts of microplastics on humans are a growing concern. However, there is not much research on the health impacts it may have on humans.
Microplastics may pose risks to the respiratory system through airborne exposure, and ingestion could potentially impact digestive health which will be discussed later in this article.
The release of harmful chemicals from microplastics and their subsequent bioaccumulation in the human body raise significant questions about the long-term consequences of exposure.
⚠️ Potential Long-term Consequences
The World Health Organization recently published an article discussing the adverse effects of microplastics on human health.
In this article, WHO analyzes the most recent research on microplastics and determined there was not enough research to suggest microplastics are having unfavorable effects on humans.
However, this does not mean that it does not have adverse health effects, it simply means there is a large knowledge gap and more standardized research is necessary.
While there is not conclusive evidence, the WHO acknowledges plastic products do not belong in the environment.
📝 Current Research and Findings
Even though there is not conclusive evidence that microplastics have adverse effects on human health there are some lab and animal studies that demonstrate the need for larger epidemiologic studies on this topic.
Plastic in Animal Studies
For several decades, there has been research on animals and exposure to plastic. In particular, marine organisms such as seabirds have been found to have plastic in their stomachs.
Sadly, back in 2012 the Convention on Biological Diversity reported that a large portion of sea turtles, marine mammals and other aquatic organisms are affected by plastic ingestion or entanglement.
Lab studies on fish have shown that plastic ingestion can lead to adverse effects on reproductive systems and increase liver stress.
One lab study on Japanese quail chicks exposed to toxins from plastics found minor delays in growth and maturation but did not show severe toxicological effects.
Other animal studies have demonstrated that microplastics trigger immune cells leading to an immune response and increased production of inflammatory proteins. Some evidence suggests that these microplastics contain endocrine disrupting chemicals.
Plastic in Human Studies
Unlike animal studies, it would be unethical to conduct a human study where a treatment group intentionally consumed microplastics.
While there are no randomized controlled trials on consumption of microplastics and its effects on human health, there are several laboratory studies that raise concern.
Researchers have confirmed in numerous studies that microplastics are in living humans, specifically in the lungs of surgical patients and in the blood of anonymous donors.
Other studies have found microplastics in human stool and the placentas of unborn babies. However, there are still questions on how these microplastics affect overall health.
In lab studies, microplastic exposure has resulted in damage to human cells through allergic reactions and cell death.
In other studies, when exposed to microplastics all cell types including airway, gastrointestinal tract cells, liver cells and forebrain cells exhibit dysfunction when exposed to microplastics.
While laboratory tests have demonstrated damage to human cells, large-scale epidemiological studies linking microplastics exposure to health impacts are significantly lacking.
🧐 So, What Now?
So, we know that microplastics are everywhere and this could potentially lead to adverse health effects. Not only that but we also know that plastic use increases contamination in our environment. Below are some ways to reduce your exposure to microplastics.
Ways to Reduce Exposure
- Limit overall plastic use (ie. plastic containers, plastic water bottles etc). Try to use glass containers or stainless steel water bottles instead
- Avoid microwaving your food in plastic
- Avoid using single use plastics, particularly water bottles
- Purchase plastic free cosmetics and personal care products
- Choose tap water over plastic water bottles
- Purchase organic clothes ie. wool vs. polyester for example
Microplastics are nearly everywhere and exposure to these particles is difficult to avoid. Even though there is awareness that humans are exposed to thousands of microplastics each year, we do not have enough research to understand the long term consequences of microplastic exposure.
While human studies are lacking, there is a large amount of laboratory and animal studies that demonstrate adverse effects with exposure.
While this raises concerns, large scale epidemiological studies are necessary to link microplastic exposure to undesirable health effects.
In the meantime, reducing your plastic use can help to limit exposure to microplastics and help reduce environmental contamination.
❔ Frequently Asked Questions
How Does Microplastics Affect Humans?
Microplastics and their effect on humans remains unclear. However, there is significant concern that exposure to these microplastics may have toxic effects. While there are animal and laboratory studies that demonstrate negative health effects, more large scale epidemiological studies are necessary to determine long term effects of microplastic exposure on human health.
How Long Does Microplastic Stay in Your Body?
It takes thousands of years for plastic to decompose. It is unclear how long microplastics may stay in your body, however if they take thousands of years to decompose in the environment it likely would have a hard time being eliminated from the body particularly from places like the lungs.
How Do You Detox From Microplastics?
One simple way to “detox” from microplastics is to avoid plastic use altogether. For example, avoid using plastic containers for leftovers. Perhaps replace it with glass containers instead. In addition, if you use a plastic water bottle or single use plastic water bottle containers, opt for a different type of water bottle like a stainless steel container.