August 15, 2021
Sometimes it seems like there is just no end to distressing environmental news. From raging wildfires to the discovery of yet another toxic waste spill, it’s hard not to become numb to it all. But that would be a mistake, especially when it comes to considering how these things will potentially impact your health and the health of your family.
One of the more recent environmental concerns that has come to light is that of microplastic contamination. Microplastics come from the degradation of plastic, which for the last 70 years has become more and more prevalent in our environment. Scientists tell us that today plastic particles are so widespread in our global environment, that we truly live in a Plastic Age, which they refer to as The Plasticene!
Microplastic particles have been detected in seawater, freshwater, agricultural soil, in the atmosphere, food, and drinking water, and in plants. These tiny plastic particles have also been found in remote locations, including the polar regions. Not only are the plastic particles themselves environmental pollutants, but they can carry various kinds of contaminating chemicals.
These effects, and potential effects, fall into two categories: the physical effects of the particles and the chemical effects. The physical effects have to do with the particle sizes, their shape, and their concentration in the environment. Chemical effects concern hazardous chemicals that may be associated with microplastics. These chemicals could be substances that were added to the plastic when it was being manufactured such as fillers, UV stabilizers, lubricants, dyes, and flame retardants. These additives are not, unfortunately, bound to the plastics and can leach out into the air, our water, and food supplies. Or, these chemicals could be compounds that the plastics have absorbed from their surrounding environment. Researchers in this area have referred to this mix as a “cocktail of contaminants.”
Many of the chemicals that are routinely used to manufacture plastics are classified as clearly hazardous, and many have been proven to be endocrine disruptors (EDCs) if they are inhaled or ingested. These EDCs have already been associated with a wide variety of human diseases including breast, prostate, and testicular cancer, infertility and other reproductive problems, diabetes, obesity, asthma, and neurodevelopmental disorders including autism spectrum disorders.
One of the major entry points into the human body for microplastics is food contamination. Recent studies have found microplastics in sugar, alcohol, bottled water, and fruits and vegetables as a result of uptake via contaminated soil. Once the contaminated food or drink is ingested, microplastic particles smaller than 2.5 microns can enter the cells of the G.I. tract and actually get into the bloodstream. The particles can cause inflammation and their negative effects will depend on the dose and the cumulative effect of repeated exposure. Fortunately, the human gut is estimated to be capable of removing up to 90% of these microplastic particles.
Another major entry point is inhalation, as these particles are easily carried by the wind. This can lead to respiratory distress, bronchial and lung inflammation, and infection if the plastic particles themselves are contaminated with an infectious virus or bacteria. These particles, if they are small enough, can also be potentially absorbed through the skin.
The worldwide distribution of microplastics is now well documented, as well as their ability to gain entry into the human body by ingestion, inhalation, and through the skin. Less well researched are their effects on human health, but preliminary studies show cause for concern.
It's easy to pick out the obvious culprits like the single use plastics we use to package food and the grocery store shopping bags we carry the plastic wrapped food home in. And of course the 1.5 billion plastic water bottles that are used daily across the world.
What you may not be aware of are the less obvious, but equally as harmful, sources of microplastics.
Clothing made from plastic is one of the biggest sources of microplastic pollution in the world. Tiny fibers of plastic break off every time we wash our synthetic clothes and it's estimates that every load can release hundreds of thousands of microfibers into the atmosphere.
Many personal care items contain some form of plastic to improve absorption, exfoliation and shine.
Even driving your car contributes to microplastic creation. Friction from the road causes tires to break down and shed plastic particles. These particles accumulate in the air and also settle into our water ways.
Consider reducing the frequency that you wash your clothing. Most of us wash our clothes only because they have been worn and not because they are truly dirty. It's also possible to install a simple filter on your washing machine to catch microfibers before they are washed down the drain.
Buy natural fiber clothing whenever possible
Read the label on your personal care items and steer clear of these commonly added plastics.
Take public transit to reduce the number of tires on the roadways.
Bring your own cloth grocery bags, including small produce bags. Too often we bring our own bags to the grocery store, only to fill them with small plastic bags to separate the apples from the carrots.