Microplastics are Everywhere, But Their Health Effects on Humans are Still Unclear

Jan 11, 2020 at 10:00am

Discover Magazine, By Jillian Mock

Plastic pollution is getting under our skin. Literally. As plastics have become ubiquitous in modern society, so too has plastic pollution, including that of tiny plastic particles. These microplastics have been detected in the air, water and even in some foods, making their presence in our bodies essentially inevitable. 

“We definitely know we’re exposed, there’s no doubt,” says Chelsea Rochman, an ecologist at the University of Toronto in Canada, who studies human-made pollutants in fresh and saltwater environments. “We drink it, we breathe it, we eat it.”

How pervasive is that plastic exposure, and is it bad for your health? Scientists don’t yet know, but they have some working theories. Here’s what we know so far about these tiny, prevalent plastic particles.

Micro Plastics, Macro Problems

Once it enters the environment, the plastic we throw away breaks down in the sun, waves and wind into much smaller pieces. We also produce tiny plastic fibers and particles when we wash clothes, drive our cars, wear down carpets and upholstered furniture and more. Microplastics are smaller than a quarter of an inch, often a millimeter or smaller; nanoplastics are even more miniscule, measuring less than 0.1 micrometers (a micrometer is 1,000 times smaller than a millimeter).

The biggest sources of human exposure to microplastics likely come from airborne dust, drinking water (including treated tap water and bottled water) and seafood (shellfish in particular, because we eat the entire animal), Rochman says. Scientists have also detected microplastics in products as varied as sugar, honey, German beer and sea salt. Emerging research suggests humans are consuming more than 100,000 microplastic particles a year, according to Kieran Cox, a Ph.D candidate and Hakai Scholar at the University of Victoria in Canada. 

“Microplastics are now considered an emerging food safety concern, but we really don’t have all the answers yet,” says Dave Love, a microbiologist at Johns Hopkins University who studies aquaculture, fisheries and related environmental, health and social issues.

Read more about microplastics in the original full article here.