By Dave Long
As we become increasingly aware of the crisis surrounding plastics in the environment, we need to increase research on the health effects of the microplastics we ingest each year.
Tiny pieces of microplastic ranging from 5 millimeters down to 100 nanometers in diameter are showing up in oceans, lakes, and rivers and being entering the food chain as aquatic and marine organisms consume them. Ultimately, these microplastics will enter our bodies in larger numbers. However, we do not yet have the scientific data to determine the health effects of ingested or inhaled microplastics.
A study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology has estimated Americans consume more than 70,000 microplastic particles every year from the food we eat and the water we drink. Scientists warn that while the health impacts of ingesting these tiny particles are largely unknown, the plastic could potentially enter human tissues and cause an immune response, as well as release toxic chemicals into the body.
The analysis, done by biologists at the University of Victoria in Canada, examined data from 26 previous studies on microplastic contamination in fish, shellfish, sugars, salts, honey, alcohol, tap water, bottled water, and in urban air. It found that Americans eat and drink an estimated 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles every year, depending on age and gender. These numbers jumped to 74,000 to 121,000 when scientists included inhalation of microplastics.
People who drink only from plastic bottles can consume 90,000 microplastic particles annually compared to 4,000 particles for people who drank only tap water. When the 2018 Orb study for Business Insider was originally released, Aquafina and Dasani both told the magazine their bottled water is tested to strict standards and pass through high-quality filtration systems. Nestlé said the company hasn’t found microplastics in its water bottles beyond a “trace level”, disputing the study numbers. Evian did not respond to a request for comment. But studies suggest that particles do, in fact, exist in bottled water. They come out of our taps, too (though likely in smaller amounts than plastic bottle concentrations). The scientists warn that their findings are “likely drastic underestimates overall”.
Another marine food source of microplastics is sea salt, one kilogram of which can contain more than 600 microplastics. If you eat the maximum daily intake of 5 grams of salt, this would mean you would typically consume three microplastics particles a day. New research now shows microplastics in 90 percent of the table salt brands sampled worldwide. Salt samples from 21 countries in Europe, North and South America, Africa and Asia were analyzed, and only three brands did not contain microplastics— refined sea salt from Taiwan, refined rock salt from China, and unrefined sea salt from France produced by solar evaporation. The study was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology on October 4, 2018.
According to collaborative research done by scientists at the University of Minnesota and the State University of New York at Fredonia, microplastic fibers or particles were present in each brand of beer tested that used tap water drawn from the Great Lakes. In their paper, published in the journal, Public Library of Science, the team found that in each of the 12 mainly Pilsner-style beers tested from all five Great Lakes, the number of particles per liter ranged from 0-14.3 and averaged 4.05.
Fish and shellfish aren’t our only food sources that can contain microplastics. Just 15 percent of a person’s caloric intake is associated with the consumption of up to 52,000 microplastics annually. And the researchers note that several major U.S. food groups—including poultry, beef, dairy, grains, and vegetables—have not been studied for their microplastic contamination. In addition, the scientists weren’t able to assess how much plastic might be entering our bodies from food packaging.
The study’s findings “suggest that microplastics will continue to be found in the majority, if not all, items intended for human consumption,” the scientists wrote. “If the precautionary principle were to be followed, the most effective way to reduce human consumption of microplastics will likely be to reduce the production and use of plastics.”
David Long is the founder of Environmental Sustainability Solutions, LLC (ESS) that provides consulting services for environmental, sustainability.