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You're likely already aware that global plastic pollution has reached an all-time high, but did you know you're eating it, too? Research concludes that, on average, you're consuming a credit card's worth of plastic each week
A study put out by the University of Newcastle, Australia, found that, on average, you're consuming the equivalent of a credit card's worth of microplastic -- small plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size -- each week. These microplastics pollute the air you breathe and the foods you consume, and are especially prevalent in the water you drink, according to this study and others like it.[i],[ii]
Despite these concerns and the growing awareness of plastic pollution, plastic production has been on the rise since the 1960s, and researchers predict that 12,000 million metric tons of plastic will be in landfills or the environment by 2050.[iii],[iv]
The Impact of Microplastics in Humans and Animals
Microplastics represent almost permanent contamination of global environments and threaten terrestrial ecosystems on a global level.[v] Bioaccumulation of microplastics has an especially adverse impact on marine environments, where microplastics coat the gills and digestive tracts of marine life, cause the unnatural and early death of many marine species, and may contribute to a loss of marine biodiversity.[vi],[vii]
In humans, inhaled and ingested microplastics may cause particle toxicity by provoking an immune response, according to a study of microplastic accumulation in mice.[viii],[ix] Additional research found that biofilms growing on microplastics may be a source of bacterial pathogens.[x],[xi]
Unfortunately, the data on the impact of microplastics on human health is still emerging. While researchers theorize that microplastics may lodge in your airways and lungs, stimulate inflammation, pose as a chemical or physical irritant in your body, or affect the health of fetuses and young children, many of the effects of microplastics remain to be seen.[xiv] As one study concluded:
"Currently, there are more questions than answers. The scientific community must lead this debate. As we have seen with lead and other chemical pollutants, the consequences [of microplastics] can be far-reaching, widespread, and enduring."[xv]
Minimizing Your Exposure to Microplastics
The study emphasized that the average amount of consumed microplastics varies depending on the age, geographic location, demographics and lifestyle choices of each individual. There are many actionable ways to reduce plastic in your own food and water, including:
- Avoid bottled water. One study found that those who meet their daily recommended intake of water using only plastic water bottles may ingest an additional 9,000 microplastics annually, while individuals consuming only tap water consume less than half that amount -- around 4,000 microplastics.[xvi] The study concluded that these amounts are likely underestimated.
- Don't use plastic food storage containers. Glass and steel are impermeable, easy to wash and use, preserve the taste of food, and are easy to recycle compared to plastic.[xvii]
- Don't heat food in plastic. A study conducted to determine the estrogenic effects of plastic food storage containers found that "leaching of monomers and additives from a plastic item into its contents is often accelerated if the product is exposed to common-use stresses such as ultraviolet (UV) radiation in sunlight, microwave radiation, and/or moist heat via boiling or dishwashing."[xviii]
- Eat more raw or fresh produce. Avoiding canned food and plastic wraps -- in some older houses, researchers have found pollutants banned over 50 years ago.[xx] Dusting and vacuuming or using an air purifier helps to reduce exposure to these toxins.[xxi]
- Opt for natural fabrics for your clothing. Synthetic textiles are full of plastic and washing them can rinse the microplastics off of the garment. The runoff eventually makes its way into the oceans, where microplastics are consumed by fish and shellfish.[xxii]
In fact, washing synthetic textiles may be the leading cause of microplastic pollution in marine environments.[xxiii] Instead, choose clothing made from natural fibers like cotton.
- Air dry clothes. Synthetic materials like acrylic, polyester and nylon shed plastic microfibers when they are dried in an electric dryer.[xxiv] Air drying these materials will help to reduce emissions of microplastics into the home environment.
- Avoid cosmetic products containing microbeads. Microbeads are considered a primary microplastic and are prevalent in many facial and body washes, although some companies have voluntarily opted to stop using them.
- Be careful with seafood consumption. Human plastic use has leached microplastics into the marine environment of the fish and shellfish humans consume, putting those microplastics back into your body. Limiting your consumption of seafood may help minimize exposure to these harmful toxins.[xxviii]
By following these tips, it's possible to effectively reduce the amount of microplastic you ingest, but the problem of global plastic pollution persists -- in fact, researchers estimate that global production of virgin plastic will quadruple by 2050.[xxix] Here are a few additional ways to reduce the global impact of plastics:[xxx],[xxxi],[xxxii]
- Reduce the use of plastics in your home and recycle properly. Opting for food storage containers made from glass or steel, using reusable grocery bags and avoiding microbeads in cosmetic supplies and single-use plastics like straws are all easy ways to reduce your plastic consumption.
- Vote with your dollars. Support companies that opt for eco-design in their packaging.
- Eat locally sourced food. Eating local foods reduces the need for plastic food packaging, as well as fuel to transport these goods.
- Support legislature in favor of reducing plastics and plastic pollution.
Thanks to the continued work of researchers and scientists, studies like the one put out by the University of Newcastle, Australia, are renewing awareness to this global problem and its impact on the environment. For more information and research studies regarding environmental pollutants, visit the GreenMedInfo.com dashboard.
[i] K. Senathirajah, T. Palanisami, University of Newcastle, How much microplastics are we ingesting? Estimation of the mass of microplastics ingested. Report for WWF Singapore, May 2019