Microplastics are becoming an issue that more and more people are becoming aware of and considering their effects on the body.
Microplastics carry a range of contaminants or chemicals including trace metals, which can leach from plastic products into the body. This can result in toxic effects on humans, including plastics with carcinogenic properties that have been indicated to contribute to cancer.
What Are Microplastics?
Microplastics come from a variety of sources and can also come from larger pieces of plastic that have broken down over time into pieces smaller than around five millimeters in length. These can be found in many oceans around the world.
They often stem from varying pieces of plastic that degrade over time into smaller and smaller pieces. Microbeads are another type of microplastic that are very small pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic which is added as exfoliant to health and beauty products (think toothpaste and scrubs).
Unfortunately, these tiny particles don’t get picked up through water filtration systems and can end up in the ocean.
When it comes to microplastics and human consumption, there are many microplastics around the home that end up settling as dust around the house. These can come from household items such as the clothes you wear, home furnishings and of course, food and beverage packaging.
Microplastics come from petrochemicals extracted from oil and gas products such as traditional plastic.
History Of Microplastics
Microplastics have been of interest to researchers for around 20 years, with most studies focusing on marine life and its impact on different species. The term microplastics was coined in 2004 by Richard Thompson at the University of Plymouth.
He coined this term to describe plastic particles smaller than five millimeters across after his team found them present on the beaches in Britain. Since then, scientists have been finding microplastics everywhere from the ocean and Arctic snow and ice to food, water and even in the air and rain.
It’s said that these pieces can take decades or longer to completely degrade and then may leave toxic residue behind wherever they fall. It’s also said that there is some level of exposure to nearly every species on earth of microplastics.
What Are Examples Of How Humans Can Ingest Microplastics?
When it comes to microplastics and humans, there are several ways you can become impacted by microplastics:
- Inhaling through dust in the home
- Inhaling through synthetic clothing during or after washing
- Ingesting through beverage holders such as plastic bottles that leach microplastics
- Ingesting through food packaging such as plastic from a takeaway store.
Microplastics have also been found in items such as:
- Rice (amounts depended on how it was packaged and whether it was washed)
- Seaweed food items
- Soft drink
- Tap water
- Bottled water
The amount of microplastics in most of these weren’t seen as high risk and there were many factors such as country of origin, packaging, rinsing/washing before use and location.
Can Microplastics Harm Humans?
Experts are divided when it comes to the impact of microplastics on humans, yet most do agree that humans should minimise where they can, their exposure to unnecessary plastics such as takeaway food containers and drink containers.
Many experts do agree that it’s the amount of microplastics that makes the difference – i.e. small quantities are of course not as concerning as extremely high amounts of microplastics. Dust environments, regardless of the quantity of microplastics, can also be harmful to respiratory systems in humans.
Government bodies that regulate food safety and standards are becoming increasingly interested in the impacts of microplastics in food and more and more researchers are conducting research on microplastics in the home.
How Could Microplastics Be Harmful To Humans?
Researchers have many theories around why and how these microplastics could be harmful to humans:
- Extremely small particles could be ingested and able to enter cells or tissues – this could inflame organs such as the lungs or potentially lead to cancer
- Air pollution that contains specks from power plants, vehicle exhausts or forest fires have been known to land in the airways and lungs causing respiratory damage
- Larger microplastics are thought to have more negative effects through chemical toxicity which can impact the endocrine or hormonal systems through ingestion.
Of course, when it comes to ingestion of microplastics, there are many factors that come into play such as exposure levels, how quickly they move through the body, your health and where they have come from meaning what was the plastic made from.
If you’re concerned about microplastics, the best thing to do is speak to your healthcare professional such as a GP.
Of course, the impact on marine environments of microplastics is also very concerning and many studies have focused on this rather than humans thus far.
What Happens When Humans Consume Microplastics?
The good or not-so-good news is that we are likely to consume microplastics each and every day. Around the home, from drink or food containers, in the shops or at restaurants or the workplace. One estimate said that we may consume as much as five grams of plastic per week. Read more here.
When humans consume or ingest microplastics, there can be many different impacts from zero to impacting the body. This could be through the cells or processes such as the endocrine system/hormones or respiratory issues if they land in the lungs.
Perhaps the most concerning impact has been seen from plastic that leaches carcinogenic chemicals into the body and potentially causes or contributes to cancer. This can come from beverage or plastic containers made from traditional plastic and containing chemicals.
It’s important not to panic, as many factors do come into play, as discussed above. However, you should consider how you can reduce microplastics in your home which we will discuss at the end of this article.
What Toxins Are In Microplastics?
The toxins found in microplastics are an issue due to what can be found in them. This has included:
- Trace metals such as lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium and antimony – all which are not healthy for human ingestion/consumption
- Harmful chemicals such as:
- BPA (bisphenol A) an industrial chemical used to make plastics and resins since the 1950s such as plastic bottles. It has since been banned in many countries due to its history of leaching. BPA interferes with the body’s hormones.
- Styrene – from polystyrene used in food packaging for example, which has been linked to a number of health issues including nervous system issues, hearing loss and cancer.
- Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBS) – used from the 1930s-1970s for a range of industrial products and phased out. These have been linked to harmful health impacts such as weakened immune systems, reproductive problems and various cancers.
How Much Microplastic Is In The Ocean?
One of the most focused areas around the impact of microplastics is its presence in the oceans. Recent research (2021) has suggested that there are around 24.24 trillion pieces of microplastics in the world’s upper oceans.
This is a combined weight of up to 578,000 tons or the equivalent of 30 billion standard plastic water bottles. Read the study here.
Unfortunately, this level of microplastics in the oceans comes from humans. Through a range of sources such as:
- Air particles from manufacturing
- Forest fires.
Many of the microplastics come from ordinary plastic items from consumers including:
- Synthetic textiles (i.e clothing, shoes, accessories, household items)
- Road markings
- Personal care/beauty/cosmetic products
- Road markings
- City dust
- Marine coatings
- Plastic pellets.
You can read more in a 2019 article on where microplastics come from.
What Can We Do Moving Forward?
Although we are exposed to microplastics in many areas of our everyday life, the good news is that you can minimise your exposure in your homes. This can be done through making some different decisions in decorating/furnishing and the items you purchase and wear.
- Choice of flooring – hard surfaces such as wood floors over carpet
- Vacuuming weekly or more regularly
- Cleaning surfaces regularly
- Choosing natural fibres in clothing and items such as blankets and pillows
- Choosing reusable food and beverage holders such as metal or glass.
Have a look around your home and identify the easy changes you can start with – it may be simply throwing out your plastic food containers or bottles and replacing them with reusable alternatives! Every small step will lead toward improved safety from microplastics.
Although it’s estimated that we are exposed to microplastics in everyday life and these could lead to health issues, it’s best not to fear. Microplastics are known as pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long across and the term was coined in 2004.
Most research thus far has focused on the impact of microplastics in our oceans, however, with more and more scientists focusing on microplastics in food and around the home, it’s becoming an increasingly popular topic.
You can make some informed decisions in your everyday life to reduce the amount of microplastics present in your home and that make their way into our waterways. Choosing natural fibres, flooring, reusable food and drink containers and cleaning regularly will all help to reduce your exposure to microplastics.