Microplastics: The Emerging Threat to Our Health

plastic in cosmetics

On a weekly basis, the average person unknowingly ingests an amount of plastic comparable to the size of a credit card. This startling disclosure highlights the widespread presence of microplastics in our surroundings.

As individuals, we are ingesting or absorbing microplastics into our bodies through various pathways. These include consuming contaminated food and beverages, inhaling particles in the air, and even through direct skin contact with products that contain microplastics; lipstick and polyester clothing for example.

Microplastics have been confirmed in human blood, lung tissue, colons, placentas, stool, and breastmilk. But how they impact our health is still largely unknown. 

The pervasive presence of microplastics in our environment has led to their unintentional incorporation into our daily lives and biological systems.

Microplastics vary in size from 100 nanometers to 5 millimeters. They are deliberately produced for products such as cosmetics and paint. These types of microplastics are known as primary microplastics.

Plastic pollution on a beach

Secondary microplastics are formed from the degradation of larger plastic items like plastic cups. They display a wider diversity of forms than primary microplastics, ranging from the polyester fibers in our clothes to discarded plastic spoons found in water bodies.

Any plastic present in the environment will ultimately transform into secondary microplastics due to natural factors like wind, water movement, and ultraviolet rays, causing it to gradually break into tinier pieces. While they continue to degrade, these tiny fragments remain present in the environment indefinitely.

The chemical complexity of plastics is alarming; over 10,000 distinct chemicals are utilized to modify their physical attributes. As these plastics degrade into microplastics, these chemicals likely remain, presenting potential health risks as they can leach out in human tissues.

The body’s immunological response to microplastics further exacerbates the concern. Chronic exposure can lead to inflammation, a precursor to a myriad of diseases, including cardiovascular diseases and cancers.

Furthermore, microplastics have adsorptive properties, acting as vectors for environmental contaminants such as pesticides and flame retardants. Once internalized, these absorbed substances can be released, amplifying health risks. They can also transport pathogenic microbes, with studies highlighting the potential for viruses to persist on microplastics in freshwater environments.

Despite the mounting evidence of their omnipresence, the health implications of microplastics remain largely undefined. Reports, including those from authoritative bodies like the World Health Organization, indicate a significant gap in our understanding, advocating for further rigorous scientific inquiry. 

plastic fork in oceanDealing with the threat of microplastics requires a two-pronged strategy: continued research to gain a clearer understanding of their health effects and promoting sustainable behaviors to decrease plastic pollution. The responsibility lies not just with organizations but also with individual efforts. By cutting down on plastic use, particularly disposable products, and advocating for eco-friendly policies, we can lessen the spread of micro- and nanoplastics.

In essence, the microplastics issue embodies a broader environmental conundrum: our actions have repercussions, often unforeseen, in the intricate network of ecosystems and human health. As we untangle the complexities surrounding microplastics, we can adopt these measures: reduce the use of plastic to prevent it from entering our ecosystem, and recycle and repurpose existing plastic.

For more information I encourage you to read Microplastics and Health Risks: What Do We Really Know?