Plastic is literally everywhere; the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the products we use on our bodies, and it's even in our blood.
As plastic production, pollution, and consumption continues to rise annually, microplastics are a whole new phenomenon that are infiltrating every aspect of our lives.
Microplastics have been found in lung tissue, blood samples, and even the placenta of unborn babies while higher exposures have been observed among children due to possible increased exposure to environmental toxins.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are tiny plastics, often smaller than a grain of sand, and many are too small to be seen by the naked eye. Researchers defined microplastics as small plastic particles that measure less than 5 millimetres in length.
They can come from a variety of sources, including the breakdown of plastic items, the shedding of microfibers from synthetic clothing, and microbeads used in everyday care products such as toothpaste and exfoliating scrubs.
An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year affecting the ecosystem but also marine life. Because microplastics are so small they can be ingested by creatures at the bottom of the food chain and move their way up, inevitably affecting humans.
How do microplastics affect human health?
The effects of microplastics on human health are not well understood, as research in this area is still ongoing. However, it is known that microplastics can have a variety of negative effects on human health, including:
Toxicity: Microplastics can absorb toxic chemicals, such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals, which can then be ingested by marine animals and potentially end up in the food chain, affecting human health (5).
Inflammation: Studies have shown that microplastics can cause inflammation in human cells, which can lead to a variety of health issues such as cancer, heart disease and neurological disorders (6)(7).
Endocrine Disruption: Plastics have been found to leach endocrine disrupting chemicals and have an impact on human hormones, by mimicking estrogen and other hormones in the body and altering their normal functions (8)(9).
Obesity: Microplastics may be linked to an increased risk of obesity by affecting metabolism and promoting the growth of fat cells (10).
Lung irritation: Plastic fibers have been found in human lung tissue most likely from inhalation of microplastics in the air (11)(12).
- Exposure to harmful chemicals: Microplastics can release chemicals such as phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) which can have negative effects on human health (13)(14).
What can you do?
Protecting your health from microplastics can be challenging, as they are present in many everyday products and can be found in the environment.
However, there are several steps you can take to reduce your exposure to microplastics in your day to day life and protect your health:
- Avoid single-use plastics: Single-use plastics, such as plastic bags, straws, and cutlery, are a major source of microplastics in the environment. By avoiding these items and opting for reusable alternatives, you can help reduce the amount of microplastics in the environment.
- Be aware when buying personal hygiene products and choose varieties with less plastic.
- Ditch the plastic water bottles and filter your tap water: Microplastics have been found in both sources. Using a water filter, such as a reverse osmosis filter, can remove microplastics and other contaminants from your tap water.
- Use a washing machine filter: Microfibers from synthetic clothing can be released into the water supply during the washing process. Using a washing machine filter can capture these fibers before they enter the water supply.
- Be mindful of seafood: Marine animals can ingest microplastics, which can then end up in the food chain. To reduce your exposure to microplastics, choose seafood that is sustainably sourced and avoid consuming species that are known to contain high levels of microplastics.
- Clean your house properly and regularly with soap and water. Dust may contain microplastics.
- Ensure your home is well ventilated to reduce exposure to airborne microplastics, which may originate from plastic products used in your home.
- Avoid heating plastic bottles and food containers—that means no microwave and washing by hand in warm, not hot, water.
Support legislation: Support legislation that aims to reduce the use of single-use plastics and regulate the use of microplastics in products.
By taking these steps, you can reduce your exposure to microplastics and help protect your health. Keep in mind that microplastics are so widespread that it is impossible to completely avoid them. Therefore, it is important to minimize exposure as much as possible.
Overall, microplastics do pose a significant environmental concern that must be addressed. By reducing our use of single-use plastics, properly disposing of plastics, using natural fibers, and opting for more natural personal care products, we can all play a role in reducing the amount of microplastics in the environment.