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It turns out that we're all eating tiny bits of plastic in our food. Yes, teeny tiny bits of plastic that are smaller than 5 mm and are called microplastics. Why are there tiny plastic pieces in our food? Is it doing anything to us, to our health? What can we do about it? After all, it's not normal or desirable to eat plastic.

Most of us have heard of the "garbage patches" in the oceans - consisting of many pieces of plastic debris, both big and small. But the reality is that tiny pieces of plastic are all around us, not just far away in the ocean. Microplastics can be found in our drinking water, bottled water, in the seafood we eat, in honey and sugar, in beer, table salt, even in our house dust (which includes tiny synthetic fibers, such as polyester, that are constantly being shed from soft furnishings, clothing, and carpet fibers), and outside air (e.g. from tires). This is microplastic pollution, and unfortunately this pollution is increasing each year because we are increasing our use of plastics. [Other posts on this topic here, here, here.]

Every time we eat a meal we ingest any plastics that are in the food, as well as any plastic particles floating in the air that settle on our food and which we then ingest. One recent study found that about 80 to 100 pieces of tiny plastic particles are eaten over the course of each meal in this way!

Currently no one knows what ingesting all these microplastics is doing to us, if anything. The research hasn't been done. However, there are questions and concerns, especially because toxic chemicals (carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, etc) used in plastic manufacturing are in the microplastics, as well as any contaminants that the plastics were exposed to in the environment. There may  even be microbes (including pathogens) on the plastics. A recent study found that we excrete microplastics  in our feces.

A 2017 United Nations report about microplastics and food safety said that while much remains unknown, microplastics in our food doesn't appear to be health threat: "It is thought that only the smallest particles (1.5 µm or less) will penetrate into the capillaries of the organs and the remaining will be excreted." and "Based on the available scientific evidence, it is safe to state that microplastics neither seem to pose a significant food safety threat and the health benefits associated with the intake of fishery products will exceed the potential risks.Nonetheless, there are many knowledge gaps..."

From National Geographic: Microplastics found in 90 percent of table salt ...continue reading "We Are All Eating Microplastics"

Most people have heard about the three huge "garbage patches" in the ocean - where tiny pieces of plastic are floating and unfortunately also being eaten by fish and birds. But the story doesn't end there - we, all humans, are also ingesting tiny pieces of plastic, for example when we breathe and eat food (e.g tiny pieces are now in fish and shellfish, so we're also eating tiny pieces of plastic). How much are we inadvertently ingesting?  What is it doing to us? 

These tiny pieces of plastic less than 5 mm in size are called microplastics. As we know, plastic doesn't break down like food and wood (into compost, soil), but it does break apart into tiny particles (from friction, heat, and light). Right now research suggests that we are exposed to more microplastic particles in indoor air then outdoor air - for example, it's in the dust from breakdown of textiles used in our furniture and synthetic fabrics in the clothing we wear and wash. (Fleece especially sheds a lot into the air when worn and into our water when washed.) There are plastic microparticles in the air, in the wind, in our street dust. Examples of microplastics in outdoor air are from the use of vehicles, such as tire abrasion, construction activities, from artificial turf, and plastic litter. It's in our water - in rivers and lakes (and our drinking water), oceans, and in our soil.

Right now no one knows what the effects of ingesting these plastic microparticles are to humans (as pointed out in a 2017 study of urban dust by  Sharareh Dehghani et al) and whether we get rid of them or whether they persist in the body. Or even how much we're ingesting and breathing in. Another concern is whether there is an effect on developing children. Some research finds that microparticles can persist in the lungs.

The good news is that there are things one can do to lower the microplastic amounts in indoor air. To lower the amount of microplastics: open up your windows to vent the air (outdoor air is less polluted generally than indoor air), vacuum frequently, use a good filter on forced air heating systems and central air conditioning systems. Perhaps use a good air purifier. But also reduce the amount of plastics in your indoor environment by buying fewer items made from plastics (from furniture to ordinary household goods to toys to synthetic clothing, especially fleece). Try to buy "natural" as much as possible - especially natural fibers such as cotton, wool, linen, hemp.

Recently there have been a number of articles written about this issue for the general public. Well worth reading is: C. Joyce's article for NPR: Beer, Drinking Water And Fish: Tiny Plastic Is Everywhere  ...continue reading "We Are Eating and Breathing In Tiny Plastic Particles?"

This is part 2 of posts about tiny particles of plastic (microfibers) in our water - which is a form of water pollution. These plastic fibers are smaller than 5 mm, and are found in water (drinking water, rivers, oceans) throughout the world. An investigative study by Orb Media (done by research scientists) took numerous drinking water samples from more than a dozen nations and analyzed them. They found that 83% of drinking water samples worldwide, and 94% of drinking water samples taken in the US (which included tap water from Congressional buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, Trump Tower in New York, and bottled waters) contained plastic microfibers.

The last post discussed  research finding plastic microfibers in rivers, and how they are now found in fish and shellfish - and so eventually in us (we eat fish and shellfish, don't we?). The plastic microfibers are in our food chain, and there is tremendous concern over what that is doing to wildlife and to us, especially as the microfibers accumulate. Well, we also now know that the plastic microfibers are found in drinking water, are in the air, and can be found in foods tested (even beer).

So what are these plastic microfibers doing to us? And how can we reduce the number of microfibers being released into the air? The Orb Media site discusses sources of plastic microfibers in the environment (from clothes being washed, tire dust, paint dust, etc.) to how we personally can generate fewer plastic microfibers (try not to use plastic bags or straws, etc.). Excerpts from The Guardian:

Plastic fibres found in tap water around the world, study reveals

Microplastic contamination has been found in tap water in countries around the world, leading to calls from scientists for urgent research on the implications for health. Scores of tap water samples from more than a dozen nations were analysed by scientists for an investigation by Orb Media, who shared the findings with the Guardian. Overall, 83% of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibres.

The US had the highest contamination rate, at 94%, with plastic fibres found in tap water sampled at sites including Congress buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, and Trump Tower in New York. Lebanon and India had the next highest rates. European nations including the UK, Germany and France had the lowest contamination rate, but this was still 72%. The average number of fibres found in each 500ml sample ranged from 4.8 in the US to 1.9 in Europe.

The new analyses indicate the ubiquitous extent of microplastic contamination in the global environment. Previous work has been largely focused on plastic pollution in the oceans, which suggests people are eating microplastics via contaminated seafood. “We have enough data from looking at wildlife, and the impacts that it’s having on wildlife, to be concerned,” said Dr Sherri Mason, a microplastic expert at the State University of New York in Fredonia, who supervised the analyses for Orb. “If it’s impacting [wildlife], then how do we think that it’s not going to somehow impact us?”

Mahon said there were two principal concerns: very small plastic particles and the chemicals or pathogens that microplastics can harbour. “If the fibres are there, it is possible that the nanoparticles are there too that we can’t measure,” she said. “Once they are in the nanometre range they can really penetrate a cell and that means they can penetrate organs, and that would be worrying.” The Orb analyses caught particles of more than 2.5 microns in size, 2,500 times bigger than a nanometre. [NOTE: This means they were not able to test for smaller sizes.]

The scale of global microplastic contamination is only starting to become clear, with studies in Germany finding fibres and fragments in all of the 24 beer brands they tested, as well as in honey and sugar. In Paris in 2015, researchers discovered microplastic falling from the air, which they estimated deposits three to 10 tonnes of fibres on the city each year, and that it was also present in the air in people’s homes.

How microplastics end up in drinking water is for now a mystery, but the atmosphere is one obvious source, with fibres shed by the everyday wear and tear of clothes and carpets. Tumble dryers are another potential source, with almost 80% of US households having dryers that usually vent to the open air. “We really think that the lakes [and other water bodies] can be contaminated by cumulative atmospheric inputs,” said Johnny Gasperi, at the University Paris-Est Créteil, who did the Paris studies. “What we observed in Paris tends to demonstrate that a huge amount of fibres are present in atmospheric fallout.”.... Plastic fibres may also be flushed into water systems, with a recent study finding that each cycle of a washing machine could release 700,000 fibres into the environment. Rains could also sweep up microplastic pollution, which could explain why the household wells used in Indonesia were found to be contaminated. 

Microfibers found in the Hudson River. Credit: PBS News Hour, Sara Cathey, Adventure Scientists