Let's break down what microplastics are to have a better understanding of why they pose health and environmental risks. Microplastics are small pieces of plastic that have broken off of larger plastic debris or have shed from clothing that contains synthetic fabrics. Microplastics are no bigger than 5 millimeters in size, about the size of a sesame seed. As you can imagine, this makes them difficult to see and filter out of food and water.
Many health and beauty products like facial cleansers and toothpaste may also contain microplastics. Some products may disclose that their products contain microbeads for exfoliating purposes; however, these micro beads are made of polyethylene, a plastic compound. Due to their small size, microbeads are able to pass through water filtering mechanisms and often find themselves dispersed into the ocean.
Are microplastics in our food?
Not only are microplastics in our food, but they also linger in the air we breathe and the water we drink. Essentially, microplastics have reached a level of becoming inevitably consumed. A report released by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) claims that the average person consumes 1,769 microplastic particles through food and drink. Other sources claim the average person consumes 5 grams, or the size of a credit card, of microplastics each week between diet and environmental exposure.
Tap water, bottled water, and fish and seafood seem to contain the highest amounts of microplastic contamination. In fish and other marine animals, microplastics are often mistaken as food and become ingested. Plastics have been found in the muscle tissues of various marine animals. When humans consume seafood, the risk of ingesting additional microplastics is substantial.
Microplastics and the Gut
The human gut is also known as the gastrointestinal (GI) system. This system is responsible for digesting food and absorbing nutrients. The scientific community is still searching for data and information on how the ingestion of microplastics impacts the human gut and microbiota.
However, short-term research has suggested the effects are far from harmless. A 2018 study released in Volume 1 of the Current Opinion in Environmental Science and Health catalog revealed that inhalation of microplastics appears to cause inflammation and irritation of the respiratory system.
Ingestion of microplastics into the GI system appears to cause local inflammation too. A 2022 report in the Scientific Reports journal stated that digestion of microplastics alters bacteria in the GI tract.
The GI system contains over 500 different bacteria that work together to create functional and optimal digestion. That is why probiotics are often recommended to those facing digestion issues. Probiotics feed the naturally occurring bacteria in the GI tract and aim to balance deficiencies or correct overgrowths of certain bacteria.
When plastic compounds are introduced to the GI tract, the 2022 study noted that the composition of bacteria changes, and suggested that microplastic ingestion can have digestive-level health effects. The study concluded that this warrants a critical investigation of the long-term impacts of microplastic ingestion.
What you can do to avoid microplastics
While avoiding microplastics completely has been found to be impossible, there are steps you can take to lower your exposure and release less microplastics into the environment.
Change How You Do Laundry
Washing and drying cycles wear and tear on clothing. Clothing is a main contributor to microplastics in the environment and home. By washing your clothing less often, line-drying clothing, and using a filter designed to capture microplastics, you can lower your exposure.
Eat Less Seafood
Seafood like fish and shellfish have been shown to contain microplastics at significant levels. By stopping or reducing your intake of seafood, you can reduce the amount of microplastics you consume.
Dusting and vacuuming your home at least once a week can reduce the amount of microplastics and fibers in the air in your home. Ensure that you dispose of vacuum waste and cleaning supplies properly by securing them in a trash bag before disposal to reduce the chances of them escaping into the environment.
Buy Clothing with Natural Fibers
Clothing made from cotton, hemp, bamboo, silk, wool, and linen are all great natural fiber options. Most clothing contains at least a portion of synthetic materials, which shed microplastic fibers. By choosing 100% natural fiber clothing, you can limit your exposure to microplastics.
1. Microplastics are tiny plastic pieces measuring less than 5 millimeters.
2. Exposure to microplastics is believed to negatively impact human health.
3. You can limit your exposure to microplastics by changing your lifestyle habits.