What Do We Actually Know About the Risks of Microplastics to Health?

In a week, you consume the plastic equivalent of a credit card. That might annoy you. However, does it hurt you?

Whom you ask will determine the answer. The discovery of microplastics in human breast milk is the most recent news; awareness of microplastics in general is undoubtedly growing. According to some studies, we could be ingesting up to 5 grammes of plastic every week through our food, drink, and various consumer goods.

Since 2019, reports on microplastics and human health have been released by the World Health Organization. At the end of August 2022, they published their most current report.

The WHO stated at the time that there was “increasing public awareness and an overwhelming consensus among all stakeholders that plastics do not belong in the environment, and measures should be taken to mitigate exposure” despite the fact that there was “little evidence from the limited data that nano- and microplastic particles have adverse effects in humans.”

Of course, the WHO is limited to what the data indicate. If microplastics are already causing long-term damage in our systems, science hasn’t yet made enough connections to conclude with certainty that this is the issue.

However, some researchers are ready to conjecture, and the risks can no longer be disregarded. Dr. Dick Vethaak, an expert on microplastics and retired professor of ecotoxicology at Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit, calls them “a plastic time bomb.”

The Plastics Issue

Except for what has been burned, every single piece of plastic that has ever been produced is still here on Earth. According to previous estimates, just 9% of all plastic is recycled, leaving 9 billion tonnes in our landfills, oceans, and ecosystems. For comparison, the Great Pyramid of Khufu is 1,500 times heavier than that amount.

Even worse information has emerged. According to a Greenpeace research from 2022, recycling in the United States was only at 5% in 2021, and a significant amount of what people consider to be “recycled” still ends up in landfills or bodies of water.

Additionally, this plastic doesn’t vanish. Instead, it disintegrates into microplastics and nanoplastics, which are ever-tinier particles.

Human blood, lung tissue, colons, placentas, stools, and breast milk have all been found to contain microplastics. But it is still unclear how they affect our health.

According to Flemming Cassee, PhD, professor of inhalation toxicology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and co-author of the most current WHO microplastics study, the question “How harmful is the material?” must be asked in order to evaluate risk.

Microplastics have three possible risks: their physical existence in our bodies, the materials they are comprised of, and the things they transport. We must understand the degree of our exposure in order to assess these hazards, claims Cassee.

The European Union launched its first study project into the effects of microplastics on human health in 2018. Although there were microplastics before that, we were unable to find them, claims Cassee.

The fact that the material is so recent and insufficient makes it impossible to draw firm judgments at this time is the true issue.

Vethaak cautions, “But going ahead, I feel that we are probably facing a public health emergency.”

Exactly what do microplastics consist of?

Microplastics are plastic particles with a diameter of between 5 millimetres and 100 nanometers, or between ten times thinner than a human hair and the width of a pencil eraser. Anything further smaller is referred to as a nanoplastic.

According to Evangelos Danopoulos, PhD, a microplastics researcher at Hull York Medical School in the United Kingdom, “Microplastics comprise a vast spectrum of different materials, different sizes, different forms, different densities, and different colours.”

Small, produced “primary” microplastics are utilised in products like paint and cosmetics. “Secondary” microplastics are produced when bigger plastic items, such as water bottles and plastic bags, degrade.

More varied than primary microplastics, secondary microplastics include everything from plastic spoon fragments to fibres shed from synthetic garments (like polyester) and can be found in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. Any plastic in the environment will eventually break down into secondary microplastic as a result of natural processes like wind, water currents, and UV radiation.

Plastic is a versatile substance. Senior researcher Heather Leslie, PhD, of the Department of Environment and Health at Vrije Universiteit, compares it to pasta with sauce. The lengthy polymer “noodles” that run through all plastic are this backbone. The “pigments, antioxidants, flame retardants, etc., that make it functional,” she claims, are found in the sauces.

What Is the Danger of Microplastics?

According to Hanna Dusza, PhD, of the Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences at Utrecht University, there are more than 10,000 different chemicals, or “sauces,” used to change a plastic’s physical properties, making it softer, more rigid, or more flexible.

These compounds are probably still present when plastics break down and turn into microplastics. According to Dusza, recent studies have demonstrated that microplastics locally leach toxic substances into human tissues or other regions of accumulation. Of the 10,000 chemical additions, 2,400 were identified as chemicals that may cause concern because they met the standards set by the European Union for persistence, bioaccumulation, or toxicity.

Many of these substances also have endocrine-disrupting properties, which means that they enter the body as hormone-impersonating toxins. Leslie explains that hormones become active in your bloodstream at very low amounts. Some chemical compounds in plastic imitate hormones to the body, which causes the body to react.

Even a small amount of some of these additives can occasionally have negative effects, according to Leslie.

For instance, one of the more well-known endocrine disruptors is bisphenol A (BPA). There are many plastic goods that use it as an addition to make polymers more rigid, but plastic water bottles, baby bottles, and the protective coatings on canned foods have raised concerns.

The female sex hormone oestrogen, which is crucial for bone density, neurodevelopment, and reproduction, may be mimicked by BPA. Estrogen controls sperm production, sex desire, and erectile function in males. Multiple cancer kinds, ADHD, obesity, and reduced sperm count have all been associated to BPA exposure, albeit this has not been conclusively established to be the cause. Most people have some BPA in their blood, but Dusza claims that as microplastics degrade, BPA may be retained, increasing our exposure and perhaps having unfavourable effects.

And BPA is only one of those 2,400 “possible concern” compounds.

The Issue of Inflammation

Our bodies are now again responding as they should when they come into contact with microplastics, which could result in a possibly worse health problem. Nienke Vrisekoop, PhD, an assistant professor at UMC Utrecht in the Netherlands, says that particles can cause an immunological reaction when they reach your bloodstream.

Microplastics cannot be broken down by white blood cells, unlike bacteria, which are easily broken down. White blood cells die when they ingest a specific mass of microplastics, whether they are numerous little particles or a single large one. This release of enzymes results in local inflammation.

The plastic particle is still there. More white blood cells attack as a result.

According to Vethaak, this leads to ongoing activation that may have a number of negative effects, such as oxidative stress and the release of cytokines that cause inflammatory responses.

And according to Leslie, “chronic inflammation is the precursor to chronic diseases.” “Inflammation is the root cause of all chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and even neuropsychiatric conditions like Parkinson’s or serious depression.”

Meanwhile, breathing in microplastic particles can cause cancer and respiratory conditions.

According to Vetaak, the smallest particles—less than one-tenth of a micrometer—can cause harm to the heart, blood vessels, and brain by penetrating deep into the lungs and even into the bloodstream. Workers in the textile and plastic sectors who have been exposed to extremely high levels of plastic fibre dust provide the only direct proof.

Carriers of Microplastics

Additionally, hazardous compounds can be absorbed by microplastics and then transported into your body.

According to Dusza, “They can essentially suck up [chemicals] like a sponge when they’re in an environment.” These substances include insecticides, fluorinated compounds, flame retardants, and other well-known environmental contaminants.

Once within the body, these substances may be released and may cause cancer, persistent inflammation, or other unidentified side effects.

Additionally, germs, bacteria, and viruses can travel on particles. A study published in September 2022 discovered that contagious viruses can “hitchhike” on microplastics to survive for 3 days in fresh water. According to Dusza, its porous structure offers bacteria the ideal conditions for survival and reproduction. You consume the bacteria if you consume the plastics.

Methods to Reduce Exposure

Microplastics cannot be avoided in any way. They are present in the water we drink, the food we consume, the items we use, and the air we breathe.

To estimate the amount of microplastics we consume through food, salt, and drinking water, Danopoulos looked over 72 studies.

We are exposed to millions of microplastics annually, and he points out that he just looked at three food sources. Clearly, there are many more. There is not much we can do to remove plastic garbage once it has been improperly disposed of and has gotten into the ecosystem.

Having said that, there are actions we can take to reduce our exposure and prevent the issue from getting worse.

Water filtration is one possibility, although it’s not ideal. Municipal water treatment has been proven to be successful through research. According to a study published in October 2021, membrane filtration and electrocoagulation-electroflotation are the only two techniques that can completely remove microplastics from treated water. The issue? These techniques aren’t used by all municipal water treatment facilities; you’d need to check to see if they are in your community.

In terms of at-home filtering techniques, they can be risky but also beneficial. Although several consumer brands promise to remove microplastics, the effectiveness also depends on the size of the waterborne particles, not only the filter type. In the meantime, how can you tell if a filter is effective on your water without testing it, which not many people are willing to do? It is best to check for independent testing on at-home brands rather than accepting a brand’s claims at face value.

A longer-term project: Reusing and recycling plastic garbage will lower our danger. By limiting our usage of plastic, particularly single-use plastic, we can reduce the amount that can be converted into micro- and nanoplastics.

According to Cassee, we must all learn to view plastic as a sustainable resource rather than as trash. However, if that seems like a difficult task, that is because it is.

Leslie explains, “You’re a human and you have a voice, and there are lots of other humans out there with voices.”

“In your neighbourhood, you sign a petition. In the bar, you discuss it with your pals. In your class, if you’re a teacher, you talk about it. You call your elected officials to express your opinions and your desired voting preferences on legislation.

According to Leslie, you can really enhance that voice when people start working together.

What’s the Verdict Right Now, Right Now?

According to numerous authorities, microplastics have no negative effects on human health. But that’s mostly because there isn’t any concrete proof of this yet.

Even the WHO asserts in its report that development is necessary if we are to properly comprehend the severity of the issue.

It states that “active participation by all stakeholders will be required to strengthen the evidence essential for reliable characterization and quantification of the dangers to human health presented by NMP (nano- and microplastics).”

We don’t have enough data, according to every researcher contacted for this piece, to make any firm judgments. Although, according to Leslie, “if you check at the wrong endpoints, everything will look secure, until you look at the endpoint where it’s really creating the problem.”

We need to examine our blind spots and keep asking ourselves, “Where may we be wrong?”

It is an issue that won’t go away, according to Danopoulos. “It will become worse and keep getting worse, not because of what we are doing now, but because of what we did five years ago.”

Are we willing to wait for the science, then? This may be the most difficult question to answer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *