Microplastics are extremely tiny pieces of plastic debris. Currently, they are present in every environment, from the summit of Mount Everest to the deepest oceans. Microplastics result from the disposal and breakdown of industrial waste and consumer products. For the first time, scientists have succeeded in detecting the presence of microplastics in human blood. They found microplastics in the bloodstream of as much as 80% of people undergoing testing. They analyzed blood samples of 22 anonymous individuals, every one of them a healthy adult. Out of the 22, scientists found microplastics in 17 blood samples. The samples contained microplastics of PET and polystyrene – materials used in the production of water bottles and food packaging.
Scientists discovered that microplastics are capable of travelling around the body and getting lodged in organs. Researchers have not yet deduced the impact of the presence of microplastics on human health. However, they are invariably concerned since laboratory studies indicated that microplastics damage human cells.
Microplastics enter our bodies through food and water. We sometimes even breathe them in. Previous work shows that researchers have found microplastics in the faeces of humans and babies. Babies are more vulnerable than humans to particle exposure. Babies swallow millions of microplastics daily through the plastic bottles they are fed with. The faeces of babies contain more than ten times the amount of microplastics found in human faeces.
This scientific breakthrough is undoubtedly an eye-opener, but at the same time, it is also deeply concerning.
So what do microplastics in human blood mean for our health? This question is going to take a long time for researchers and scientists to answer definitively. So far, the work done on the effect of microplastics on living cells has been carried out only in animals or cell cultures in a laboratory. The results are:
1. Disrupting hormones
At least 15 chemicals used in the manufacture of plastic packaging are endocrine disruptors. They are similar to hormones found in the human body, such as estrogen and testosterone, the only difference being that they disrupt natural functions. Endocrine disruptors have the potential to adversely affect our health and increase our risk of developing chronic conditions. Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used to make plastics, leads to infertility in males and females. BPA also plays a significant role in the development of polycystic ovarian syndrome in human females. BPA competes with estrogen and testosterone in the body, resulting in a reduction in the amount of these hormones available for reproductive health.
2. Chronic diseases
Long term exposure to endocrine disruptors can increase the risk of a person developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Microplastics impair fasting glucose levels, increase the body’s resistance to glucose, and lead to obesity. All these factors lead to a high likelihood of type 2 diabetes.
3. Impairing immunity
Exposure to microplastics leads to inflammation, further causing poor gut health, which eventually results in weakened immunity. 70-80% of our body’s immune cells are in the gut. Therefore, anything that interferes with the gut interferes with our immunity, causing it to weaken.
How Can We Minimize Exposure?
We cannot escape microplastics; the environment is abundant with them. According to recent research, an average person in the US consumes 50,000 microplastic particles a year from food alone. This value is much greater than what researchers anticipated. While we may not be able to eliminate our exposure to microplastics completely, we can definitely reduce it.
1. Reduce consumption of processed foods
If you consume highly processed foods like hamburgers, fries, soda, ready-to-eat meals, canned foods, etc., you have a higher level of microplastics in your body. Children that consume such food regularly have even more elevated levels of microplastics. The low nutritional quality of these foods coupled with the microplastics present in them might be responsible for the development of chronic diseases such as heart disease. Instead of packaged food, consume whole foods or foods that have undergone minimal processing.
2. Choose eco-friendly packaging
Opt for glass, stainless steel, or bamboo storage containers, bowls, water bottles, and utensils to stop microplastics from entering your body from your food supply.
3. Replace plastic water bottles
Individuals that rely on plastic water bottles have 2-3 times more microplastics in their bodies than those who use stainless steel or glass bottles. Water stored in plastic bottles for a long time, coupled with heat, has a much higher chance of transmitting microplastics through the water into your body.
Researchers have predicted that plastic production will double by 2040. With an increase in the production of plastic, we must have the right to know what it does to our bodies. Recently, citizens in the UK petitioned state and national governments to allocate funds for research on the health effects of microplastics in human blood. Meanwhile, research in the EU about the impact of microplastics on babies, foetuses, and the immune system is ongoing.
Microplastics can latch onto the outer membranes of red blood cells, limiting their ability to transport oxygen. Scientists have found microplastics in the placentas of pregnant women. They also found microplastics in the foetuses of pregnant rats.
We urgently need more detailed information on how plastic can affect processes in the human body. We also need to know how exactly they interact with cells and whether they induce carcinogenesis.
We are familiar with distressed images of turtles, whales, and dolphins trapped or choked with plastic. But what we do not see is an even greater danger – microplastics.
Researchers have provided us with evidence of plastics in the human body. They have found microplastics in human urine and faeces. Microplastics cause various health complications and put people at a higher risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases.
People that consume packaged food have a high amount of microplastics in their bodies. But we can reduce exposure by limiting or eliminating our consumption of highly processed food, using eco-friendly packaging like bamboo, and using glass or steel water bottles instead of plastic ones.