The popularity of plastics has exploded in the past 50 years with over 299 million tons produced in 2013. When companies design a new product they often choose plastic as the material because it is easily formed, durable, and cheap.
Look around, you can probably touch something plastic right now. But is there even plastic in places we don’t expect it? Like our food? Or, even in our bodies? New research suggests there is.
In a pilot study with a small sample size, researchers looked for microplastics in stool samples from eight people from Finland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom and Austria. To their surprise, every single sample tested positive for the presence of a variety of microplastics.
What is Microplastic?
Plastic debris can come in all shapes and sizes, but those that are less than five millimetres in length (or about the size of a sesame seed) are called “microplastics.” As materials break down and degrade they become smaller and smaller, like a seashell on the beach slowly becomes many hundreds of fine granules of sand.
If you’ve ever relaxed for a day at the beach, you will most certainly know that sand gets everywhere. In your hair, shoes, car, and soon you’ve tracked it all through your house. Plastic is spreading in a very similar fashion.
The Spread of Microplastics
Recently scientists discovered that insects, like mosquitoes, are ingesting microplastics and transporting it afar, contaminating previously untouched waterways and ecosystems. Professor Amanda Callaghan from the University of Reading said: “Much recent attention has been given to the plastics polluting our oceans, but this research reveals it is also in our skies.”
As mosquitoes and other insects ingest microplastics larger predators, like birds and fish, start to accumulate these plastics in their bodies. Shoppers who eat fish and other livestock should be concerned about the effects of plastic bioaccumulation in their bodies.
The growing deposits of plastic in our oceans is also concerning and there are few solutions or willingness to begin cleaning it up. One of these garbage patches, located in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii, has made global headlines. Dubbed the “the great garbage patch” it has an estimated size of the state of Texas.
Recently, Starbucks, the chain coffee shop headquartered in Seattle Washington, issued a statement pledging to eliminate the use of plastic straws by 2020. However, as the Canadian University paper, the McGill Tribune highlighted, it is a step in the right direction, but a small step. Straws makeup 4% of the plastic trash by piece, but far less by weight.
The Health Implications of Consuming Microplastics
Microplastics are a broad definition of any plastic particle under 5 millimetres and because of this, it can be a collection of many different types of plastic, just like sand on the beach. Closely examining sand will reveal is it composed of different types of rock, like quartz and feldspar.
There are many acknowledged concerns with consuming plastic. These effects include:
- Direct toxicity, as in the cases of lead, cadmium, and mercury
- Carcinogens, as in the case of diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP)
- Endocrine disruption, which can lead to cancers, birth defects, immune system suppression and developmental problems in children
People can be exposed to these chemicals not only in the manufacturing process of plastics, but even through their use, or the unknowing consumption of microplastics. We are all familiar with the scare surrounding the use of plastics containing bisphenol A or more commonly known as BPA. Higher doses of BPA are linked to infertility and other health problems. There is not currently much research addressing the danger of the long-term ingestion of microplastics. It’s safe to say it won’t be good for you.
How Do We Consume Microplastics?
Research is indicating that microplastics are making their way into all of our sources of food and water. The amount of plastic ending up in our ocean is expected to double by 2025.
Kara Lavender Law, professor of oceanography at Sea Education Association (SEA) in Woods Hole, MA, said that in 2014 the amount of microplastic in the ocean was equivalent to the amount of tuna fished in a year, in other words, we are taking out tuna, and putting in plastic! This is not good news for our planet or our health.
In a laboratory setting scientists have shown that after a sea creature eats plastic certain chemicals can be found in that sea creature’s tissue, meaning that if you were to eat something that has previously eaten plastic you may too be ingesting chemicals present in the plastic, like PCBs. There are strategies to minimize your exposure to microplastics and to reduce your own plastic footprint.
- Eat foods lower on the food chain like fruits and vegetables
- Avoid the use of plastic water bottles
- Don’t use plastic bags at the grocery store
- Say “no” to plastic straws
- Avoid the use of plastic food storage containers
- Filter your water with some sort of physical filtration, like the ceramic filter (Santevia’s Countertop with Fluoride Filter is a great example)
How do you Filter Microplastic?
Because microplastics are similar in size to a sesame seed they are possible to filter with the use of mechanical filtration. Using the Santevia Countertop’s Ceramic Pre-Filter as an example, water passes slowly through the ceramic pre-filter removing suspended particles from the water.
These microplastics are mechanically filtered from the water because the pores of the filter are smaller than the microplastics. Ceramic filters have a very small pore size, in the case of the ceramic pre-filter, 0.3 microns, meaning that the Santevia Countertop’s pre-filter can even filter bacteria and parasites.