You're Eating a Credit Card's Worth of Microplastics Every Year
As consumers, our time spent with a plastic product may only last minutes, but those same plastic products infamously require many years to break down, even taking into consideration plastic that gets recycled. Plastic doesn't rot or decompose, but it does break down into smaller and smaller particles known as microplastics (MPs).
It's not just fish you have to watch out for
Nutritional psychiatrist Sheldon Zablow, M.D., explained how microplastics move through ecosystems, particularly marine ecosystems.
"The most common source of MPs in the oceans are the fibers from synthetic cloth drained into the ocean from our washing machines," he said. "The food cycle of the oceans, from shellfish to fish to whales, are all ultimately dependent on the smallest predator—microscopic zooplankton. Microplastics are unfortunately the same size as fish eggs, larvae and the algae these plankton eat."
'Orb Media found 94 percent of water samples in the U.S. were contaminated with microplastics.'
The insidious plastic infiltration of our food sources isn't limited to a polyester sweater shedding fibers later ingested by fish. Zablow maintained that all food sources are susceptible to this development in pollution.
"While seafood is a known source of microplastic consumption, any animal, vegetable or mineral, like apples, carrots, tea, honey, beer, rice or salt produced with plastic-contaminated water, will also have higher concentrations," he continued. "Orb Media found 94 percent of water samples in the U.S. were contaminated with microplastics. [Livestock] feed can legally contain a certain amount of microplastics because some of the feed was processed by grinding it up with the plastic containers the original food source came in. Think recycled out-of-date vegetable packages, candy bars, boxed, etc."
What we know
A perfect storm of factors complicates our scientific understanding of microplastics. Besides being a relatively new trend—synthetic plastics only became popular in the 20th century—obvious ethical issues prevent scientists from injecting microplastics into human beings for the purpose of testing how our bodies deal with them. And Zablow says that's not where the challenges end.
"One challenge is just defining what size plastic pieces qualify as microplastics," he explained. "For example, microplastics are usually large enough that they cannot be absorbed across the intestinal membranes [but are] transferred by the blood to other tissues and have been found in the kidneys, spleen, liver, intestines and lungs. As the plastic particles get smaller, they are classified as nanoparticles, which do enter the bloodstream, but are too small to measure and too small for definitive studies."
They're not easy to avoid
The adverse health impacts of ingesting microplastics are far-reaching and generally understudied. Microplastics act as obstructions within the human body, and their chemical contents interact with the body holistically.
"Microplastics contain xenoestrogens—or 'foreign' estrogens—that mess with our hormones." [Brannon] said the "core compound of plastics is petroleum/oil, which leaches into the product—like with bottled water—especially if they are left sitting out in the heat," Brannon's spokesperson said. "These get into our bodies, impacting rapidly growing cells like reproductive tissues, leading to an increase in cancers and other problems. They also change our hormones, which impact everything from energy, alertness, anxiety, depression, muscle mass and libido—and they are passed along in vitro."
To avoid such effects, Zablow recommends a few possible actions.
"Each year, the average human ingests a 'credit card' of MPs," he said. "Other than the traditional ways of excreting waste, the only other way of reducing microplastics is to change what you ingest. Cook with iron skillets or glassware. Use filtered water and drink out of a glass. Obviously, avoid plastic bottled water and other drinks. Eat fresh and avoid food stored in plastics. Do not microwave anything in plastic. Avoid beauty care products that have microbeads in them. Eat less fish and avoid synthetic clothing, as it's made with plastic. Whatever diet you are on must include eating from the outside of the grocery store aisles."
'Other than the traditional ways of excreting waste, the only other way of reducing microplastics is to change what you ingest.'
This refers to the psychology dictating a supermarket's layout—the shortest path through a grocery store is not to walk the perimeter but to travel through aisles. Thus, junk food is placed in those aisles. The easiest way to avoid that temptation is to take the longer route around the store, not through it. A grocery store acts as an apt microcosm of the entire MP problem: You can take measures in what you buy, but there's also the problem of what's even offered in the first place.
These are scary facts and the problem feel pervasive. There's no easy solution, either, since individual action and systemic change are both required. While replacing single-use items with reusable options is important, regulations on consumer packaging must evolve internationally if humanity is to avoid ingesting microplastics.
As long as plastics are petroleum-based instead of sugars derived from plants—commonly known as bioplastics—the problem of ecotoxicology will continue to be a part of our dietary choices.