Plastic World, Plastic Bodies--Reducing Plastic for Better Health
Plastics are everywhere in the modern world that we live in! Although plastics have been very useful for many applications, they also pose some serious health risks. Read this blog to learn today about how you can reduce your exposure to plastics as well as how to support organizations working to reduce plastics within the environment.
Can you imagine life without plastic?
It is almost impossible. Even reading this now on your phone or computer, you are using plastic, which has become an integral part of technology, energy, transportation, medicine; almost all areas of modern life. Plastic was invented at the beginning of the 20th century, and became more widely used during and after World War II. In the 1960s, the first plastic debris were found in oceans.
Unfortunately, along with advances to modern life, plastic has brought with it serious health risks. These are due to exposures to chemicals that are used in plastic, such as bisphenols (e.g. BPA) and phthalates. These chemicals can mimic natural hormones in the body. Thus, they can muddle the normal hormone signals in adults, children, babies, and even fetuses. This “disruption” of the hormone system can lead to many health problems, including infertility, brain abnormalities, obesity, and cancers. And for those who may wonder if these chemical exposures are occurring, studies have shown that BPA and phthalates are present in almost all populations tested.
But how are we exposed to these chemicals? Some exposure is due to the leaching of these chemicals out of plastics used in food preparation and packaging. Canned foods and drinks, plastic water bottles, plastic food packaging and storage are all possible sources of plastic chemical exposures. However, even if these things are avoided, there is another source of plastic pollution: microplastics.
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that can pollute the land, waterways, oceans, and even the air. Microplastics are not any one kind of plastic, but are any plastic that is less than 5 millimeters, which is about the width of a pencil eraser. However, they can be much tinier... the smallest reported microplastic in the ocean was 1.6 micrometers. That means about 600 of them could fit into the period at the end of this sentence.
Microplastics can be produced on purpose, such as “microbeads” in cosmetics and microfibers in clothing. They can also be produced by the breakdown of larger plastic objects, such as water bottles and plastic bags. In both cases, the aquatic system (sewage, rivers, lakes, oceans) have been affected by microplastic pollution. In fact 92% of the massive amount of plastic debris on the surface of the ocean is made up of microplastics. But what does this mean for human health?
Microplastics and Health
Microplastics are so small that they can be eaten by animals, and become caught in their bodies. They have also been found in the tiny zooplankton that other animals feed on. In this way, microplastics travel up the food chain, and have been found in seafood consumed by humans (including mussels, oysters, crab, sea cucumbers and fish) . Sea salt also contains microplastics (at higher levels than lake or rock salt). Bottled water has been shown to be high in microplastics, probably due to the packaging/bottling process. Additionally, microplastics are present in the air as dust particles, and can be inhaled or consumed by people. Because this topic is so new, there has been very little research of the actual presence of microplastics in humans. However, a small study showed microplastics present in human stool samples. Most of these people had eaten seafood, and all of them had eaten plastic-wrapped food. This study showed that the people in the study were eating microplastics, along with their food and drinks.
Can consuming microplastics be harmful? Very likely. Again, there is not much information about how microplastics can affect human health. However, we do know that microparticles can cause harm to the chromosomes of cells, which can lead to infertility, obesity, and cancer. We also know that microplastics contain hormone-mimicking toxic chemicals that were mentioned earlier, such as BPA and phthalates. Studies have shown that in marine life, microplastics cause death, reduced fertility, changes in behavior and the brain, and other health problems. Researchers believe that microplastics could be a huge issue for food safety and human health. More studies need to be done to understand how microplastics can affect human health.
What Can You Do?
It can feel overwhelming when faced with such a world-wide problem. How can you protect yourself and your family day-to-day? Reducing plastic in your life, especially single-use plastic, can reduce your own exposures to these chemicals, as well as reduce plastic pollution. While there is not much known generally about microplastics in seafood, reducing seafood consumption could be prudent. Testing your and your family’s exposures will show you the levels of plastic chemicals you are currently being exposed to, and where to begin making changes in your life.
There are many groups working to study and reduce microplastics in our environment. You can help by supporting such organizations and using your vote to back government regulations that will reduce single-use plastic. Join the Million Marker mailing list to learn about new test offerings, developing issues related to microplastics, and our continuing efforts and collaborations to reduce plastic exposures.