Last year this made a splash in the news and we sort of forgot all about it. I did too. Other things were more pressing. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled on some news nuggets while I was doing some research for a zero waste initiative. I thought I would share.
The below is a hodgepodge summary from these sources: Time, National Geographic, WebMD and ScienceAlert. I have pointed directly to the articles I read and quote below. It’s interesting to note that while all of them are talking about the same report/study – I saw that they had slightly different items in their articles. And yes, they are all quoting the same chap (Kieran Cox, the study’s lead author). Let’s get down to the meat of what they found.
What are micro-plastics?
WebMD: “Microplastic particles are incredibly tiny, less than 130 microns in diameter. For comparison, a human hair has a diameter of about 50 microns.”
Where do they come from?
National Geographic: Among the research they reviewed, microfibers were by far the most commonly found type of plastic. Microfibers shed from textiles like nylon and polyester. They often wash off clothes and enter the ecosystem through washing machine wastewater.
Fragments of plastic like those commonly used for bags and straws were the second most common plastic found.
Where is it/are these found?
THE TINY PIECES of plastic scientists call microplastics are everywhere. They sit at the bottom of the sea, mix into beach sand, and blow in the wind. They’re also inside us.
Air, bottled water and seafood were the biggest sources for ingested microplastics. Added sugars accounted for less, and salts, tap water and beer contributed minimally. These estimates are conservative, the researchers note, since the included foods only make up about 15% of the average diet. It’s not yet known how much plastic is in the remaining 85% of the typical diet.
Bottled water was such a big contributor of microplastics that the researchers did a separate analysis; when people drink their water only from bottled sources, they ingest about 90,000 microplastic particles every year from that water, but people who drink only tap water get 4,000 of such particles a year.
WebMD: For example, studies show that tap water exposes people to between 3,000 and 6,000 microplastic particles each year, but bottled water exposes them to between 64,000 and 127,000 particles annually if that’s their only water source. (emphasis mine)
Why should I care?
Scientists still aren’t quite sure about the amount of microplastics a body can tolerate or how much damage they do. In 2017, a study out of King’s College in London hypothesized that, over time, the cumulative effect of ingesting plastic could be toxic. Different types of plastic have varying toxic properties. Some are made with toxic chemicals like chlorine, while others pick up trace amounts of chemicals like lead found in the environment. A build up of these toxins over time could impact the immune system.
When researchers from Johns Hopkins looked at the impact of eating seafood contaminated with microplastics, they too found the accumulated plastic could damage the immune system and upset a gut’s balance.
“The potential pathways for harm are many, and scientists have only proposed a few. Once microplastics enter the gut, they could release toxic substances causing oxidative stress or even cancer, according to the researchers. Particles small enough could be taken up by cells in the lungs and gut; while larger ones might be absorbed in the digestive tract. What happens from here is anyone’s guess.”
There’s a chance that harmful chemicals in the plastic might leach out of the particles as they pass through the body, Spaeth said.
Some particles also might lodge in the body following inhalation or ingestion, causing immune system responses and cellular damage, the researchers added.
“Once in the lung, depending on the size of the particle, it could conceivably pass into the circulation and go anywhere in the body,” Spaeth said. “This study points out there’s an accumulation of these particles at pretty high numbers.”
What Can I do?
Cox says he hopes his research highlights that plastic pollution extends beyond marine wildlife.
“We haven’t considered ourselves to be a potential impact [of plastic pollution],” he says, “but we are.”
“It’s a 22-fold increase in plastic consumption from a single lifestyle choice,” Cox says. “With these kinds of issues, small choices can make a big impact for you personally and for plastic pollution.”