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How Microplastics Negatively Impact Your Health

Plastic is all around us and has become a colossal problem disrupting the existence of life on this planet. That is, the contamination caused by plastic has reached epidemic levels. From the clothes we wear to the thing we buy contains plastic in it. If it is not a massive amount, it is present at least in minute traces. Plastic has become an inevitable part of our life, and not in the slightest expedient aspect [1] .

What Are Microplastics?

The minuscule and microscopic pieces of plastics that are barely visible to the human eyes are called microplastics. As plastic is non-biodegradable, it breaks down into tiny particles over time. The fibres of plastic are less than 0.2 inches (55 mm) in size [2] . Apart from the gradual breaking down of plastic, microplastics are found in skin exfoliants and tubes of toothpaste in the form of microbeads. That is, it is produced as both big and small and eventually convert into the micro fibres of plastics. Microplastics are found all around us, in the oceans, rivers and even in the soil. Various studies conducted on the production of microplastics asserted that the microscopic fibres are produced when you wash synthetic materials such as polyester or nylon. You may know the synthetic materials as it is commonly found in the clothes we wear [3] .

So, microplastics enter the environment through the things we use on a daily basis - plastic! The over dependence of the world on plastics is adversely contributing towards destroying the environment. One of the critical victims of microplastics in the marine life [4] . We are all aware of the dumping of waste materials into the vastness of the sea so that it does not accumulate on the land.

The lack of knowledge of environmental stability and balance is resulting in a gradual yet definite depletion of quality of life. Researchers have found that around 114 species of marine life [5] are contaminated by the microplastics. That is, the tiny fibres and fragments of plastic have found its way into the freshwater as well as the marine species.

Reports have revealed that each year, five to fourteen million tons of waste [6] is dumped in the oceans, which is then broken down into small parts over time and is eventually consumed by the fish, bivalves, plankton and even the mammal, whales. With each passing year, there has only been a hike in the amount of plastic being used, now that it has come to become a part of the food we consume [7] .

Microplastics In Food

Do you eat plastic? Well, the question may sound funny to you but the answer is yes! As mentioned before, microplastics are all around us, it is found in the water bodies and soil - a direct path to the food we consume. The intentional and unintentional production of microplastics results in the accumulation of the fibres even in the dust [8] , [9] .

Although we are all aware of the environment dilemma caused by the abundant use of plastics in recent years. However, about 80% of the population is unaware that they are eating microplastics on a daily basis (yes, it is that often). Researchers from the Medical University of Vienna and the Environment Agency Austria [10] discussed the human consumption of microplastics by associating it with a study focused on examining the stool samples of individuals over a period of time. The study revealed that microplastics have become a part of the human chain, as particles of polypropylene (PP), polyethene-terephthalate (PET) were found in the stool samples [11] .

The small plastic fibres in the sea are mistaken by the fish as food, resulting in the toxic entering the body of the fish. A study conducted on examining the microplastic contamination in bivalves (a type of molluscs) in China [12] revealed that mussels and oysters are at high risk when compared with other marine beings. The seafood used for human consumption has around 0.36 to 0.47 particles of microplastic per gram. The studies reveal the revulsion behind the impact of microplastic contamination.

However, microplastics are found not only in the fish we eat but also in other meat and processed food as well [13] . The manufacturing methods used for the mass production of foods result in the food being laced with large amounts of plastic fibres. Also, the microplastics found in the soil enters the body of animals and on consuming meat, it enters the human body as well.

But it doesn't state that people who eat fish and meat are the only ones affected by the growing prominence of microplastics. The minute particles of fibre are found in beer to honey and even bottled water [14] . The most direct way through which the microplastics can enter your body is sea salt. A study was conducted to analyse the level of microplastic in sea salt by comparing fifteen different brands. It was ascertained that per kilogram, 600 particles of microplastic was present in the salt [15] .

Bottled water is a colossal source of microplastics, be it in a glass bottle or in a plastic bottle. While plastic single use bottles contained between 2 to 44 microplastic particles per litre, glass bottles also had similar levels. Likewise, the dust in your home is another contributing factor. Annually, this dust causes us to consume around 70,000 particles of microplastic, by settling on the food kept in the house [16] .

Likewise, the plastic wrappers covering the food is also a contributor to the presence of microplastics in your body. Drinking water [17] from a plastic bottle causes you to consume more microplastics than eating fish, which reveals the horror behind the reality of global microplastic contamination.

The Impact Of Microplastics On Your Health

The exact effect of the microscopic plastic fibres on human health is yet to be confirmed by studies. But, you may not need scientific proofs to understand that consuming plastics is bad for your health. The scientific proofs will help gain a clearer and wider understanding of the health risks [18] posed through the consumption of microplastics. The fewer number of studies conducted on analysing the effect it has on your health poses as a limitation.

Some have stated that the microplastics do not get into the system or the bloodstream in any way and simply passes through the digestive tract. That is, any microplastic particle above 0.15 millimetres passes through the digestive tract without much difficulty or any issues. But when the microplastics are smaller than 0.15 mm, it is bound to cause harm to the body [19] .

A study on the impact of microplastics when digested was conducted by examining animals. It was revealed that the microplastics [20] have the tendency to absorb chemicals that are toxic and release it in the digestive system. The release of toxic chemicals into the digestive tract can cause various health problems related to digestion and can hinder the digestion processes. The microplastic particles can irritate the intestinal wall.

Phthalates found in plastic, a chemical used to provide flexibility to plastic is linked with the growth of breast cancer cells. The chemical causes the cancerous cells to multiply and elevate the levels of cancer. Another study conducted on mice revealed that on consuming the microplastics, the particles accumulated in the kidney, liver and the intestines. The microplastics also caused oxidative stress in the liver and increased the levels of the oxidative molecules [21] .

The microplastics are also asserted to have impacted the levels of the toxic molecule, which is toxic to the brain and affect your cognitive functioning. The microplastic fibres which are smaller than 0.15 mm [22] have been shown to enter to the bloodstream and there are chances indicating that the particles can affect the internal organs.

Another study conducted on analysing the level of microplastic in the human body it was revealed that about 87% of the respondents had the presence of fibre in their lungs [23] . It could enter your lungs through the air, as microplastic is present all around us (which has been scientifically proven). The microplastic particles present in air may lead to inflammation in the lungs.

BPA or Bisphenol A [24] , [25] is a chemical commonly found in food storage containers and plastic packages used to cover food. The chemical may affect the reproductive hormones in women especially. The absorption abilities of microplastic results in the absorption of toxic chemicals, which will be released into your digestive system, once the plastic containing food reacts with the acids in your digestive system [26] , [27] .

Some of the possible health problems caused by the consumption of the microplastic particles are as follows.

  • The minute particles can pass into the bloodstream and cause cardiovascular or cerebrovascular diseases [28] .
  • Once it is in the bloodstream, it may induce cancer and can affect the immune system and nervous system.
  • When the microplastics present in the air is inhaled in, the tiny particles reach deep into lungs where it can cause lesions in the respiratory systems.
  • The microplastics often act as carriers of other toxins and pollutants present in the air such as bacteria, causing difficulty in breathing [29] .
  • Children are more vulnerable to the microplastics due to their rapid breathing pattern, increasing their risk at developing respiratory problems.
  • Toddlers are increasingly prone towards ingesting the microplastics as they spend a lot of time crawling on the floor, where the minute fibres would have accumulated in the form of dust.
  • In some cases, it may cause deformities to the foetus due to the presence of microplastics in the placenta.

However, there is a rising need to conduct extensive and exploratory studies to understand the impact of microplastics on the human body. The studies conducted on animals and marine life shine light on the aspect on a smaller level, more like a glimpse into the negative possibilities it holds for the human system.

How To Avoid Microplastics

Time has come now for each and everyone to limit the usage of plastics. As plastic is becoming a problem, with each passing day, governments and nature conservation groups around the world have taken the matter into their hands.

Some of biggest contributors to microplastics contaminating the sea, and thus the food cycle are [30]

  • tyres,
  • synthetic clothing,
  • tennis ball,
  • laundry and dishwasher pods or tablets,
  • cigarette butts,
  • glitter,
  • tea bags,
  • wet wipes,
  • food takeaway cups, and
  • paint.

There is nothing much we can do about the microplastics that are already present in the air and water. What we could do is to think about the future and act accordingly, so as not to gradually and eventually reduce the levels of microplastics present around us. However, the first step adopted was to limit the production and use of plastics, thereby limiting the plastic waste. The step towards avoiding microplastics is by reducing your plastic waste [31] .

  • Switch to biodegradable products.
  • Reduce buying processed foods and foods covered in plastic.
  • Say bye-bye to bottled water. Boil the water at your home and carry it in a water bottle, which is not plastic.
  • Try reducing the consumption of seafood, especially shellfish.
  • Avoid using plastic straws.
  • Research about the alternatives that could be used in place of plastic.
  • Use cloth bags or reusable paper bags.
  • Use clothes that are eco-friendly and non-synthetic.
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Story first published: Friday, February 8, 2019, 16:00 [IST]
Read more about: threat food health cancer pollution