environment

Microplastic Is Everywhere and It's Sneaking Into Our Bodies

New research shows plastic pollution isn’t limited to the ocean and landfills. It’s all around us and people are eating and drinking it.

by Anne Gaviola
Jun 5 2019, 12:19pm

Photo via Shutterstock

For the first time ever, researchers have an idea of how much microplastic humans consume. Based on their estimates, the average person inhales and ingests about 330 tiny pieces of plastic, the size of a sesame seed or smaller, every day. This microplastic comes from larger plastic products like water bottles, packaging, and clothing made out of synthetic fibres, that have been broken down or degraded.

Most microplastic research has focused on its impact on waterways and marine animals, or specific types of food. But a study released Wednesday and co-authored by scientists at the University of Victoria and the Hakai Institute research centre, gives us a snapshot of human exposure to microplastic in the air we breathe, and the food and drink we consume.

Kieran Cox is the lead author of the report, which reviewed 26 existing studies around the world and estimated that the average person’s microplastic consumption is between 70,000 and 121,000 particles per year. He cited our increasing production and consumption of plastic goods and packaging as sources of microplastic exposure.

“Our over-reliance on plastic has resulted in a hyper-abundance of it. You get in a car that has a largely plastic [interior], we’re talking to each other on plastic devices, wearing a jacket made of plastic. Maybe you had your coffee this morning in plastic. We need to reassess our reliance on synthetic materials,” said Cox.

He said the most surprising finding is that drinking water exclusively from plastic bottles makes such a big difference. People who drink tap water were exposed to about 5,000 microplastics a year, compared with people whose exclusive bottled-water drinking exposed them to 100,000 microplastics or more. “This shows that small decisions, over the course of a year, really matter and have an impact,” Cox said.

Kieran Cox Lead Author University of Victoria microplastic research marine biology
30-year-old Kieran Cox is the lead author of the study (photo courtesy of University of Victoria)

Although the latest research doesn’t delve into what microplastics do to your health, or what doses are harmful, it does suggest a need for studies that look at what happens when microscopic pieces of plastic build up in human bodies.

According to Cox, there is reason to be alarmed, because microplastics can be a vehicle for poisonous substances. “Microplastics are hydrophobic and that means other toxins like a hydrocarbon or a DDT or other pollutants can grab onto these plastics and if we’re consuming them, it’s not good news.”

He said more needs to be done to look at how prevalent microplastics are in common foods such as beef, poultry, dairy, and grains. “There has been a large bias towards looking at plastics in the marine environment, and I understand that. I’m a marine ecologist by trade. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about the large number of major food groups.”

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