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The Plastic Inside Us

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Photo by FLY:D on Unsplash.

Plastic! Of all the anthropocene’s worldly delights, none have become so ubiquitous as that nigh-immortal petroleum product, and no form of plastic has infiltrated as much of the biosphere as microplastics. To say they are everywhere is merely accurate: our atmosphere, oceans, food, clothing, pets, plants, cleaning products, health products, and very bodies themselves are rife with the stuff. While there’s no clear indication that any major health problems are associated with microplastics so far, not much research has been done on the subject.

Instead of fully breaking down, plastic disintegrates into tiny, unmanageable bits.

Microplastics are what happens when plastic tries its very best to decompose. Instead of fully breaking down, plastic disintegrates into tiny, unmanageable bits. Those parts that end up smaller than 5mm wide (small enough to fit through most water filtration systems) become microplastics, ready for their magical journey across the planet’s many biospheres and eventually into our bodies, either directly through the air or water, or indirectly through things we eat and products we use. 35% of microplastics in the ocean are believed to have an origin in the garment industry, especially those garments made out of polyester, acrylic, and nylon. The rest comes largely from soaps, shampoos, and other health and beauty products as well as larger plastic items like packaging and bags that have broken down over time.

Some estimates indicate the average human on Earth ingests about 50,000 plastic particles per year – and that’s not accounting for any that might be inhaled. A more recent study indicates that five grams of plastic passes through our gastrointestinal tract each week, or roughly the same amount of plastic that’s in a credit card. While it’s important to remember that most of this plastic does indeed pass through our bodies, microplastics have been found to accumulate in the gastrointestinal tract of mice, and have been found throughout the human body. While some studies may assert that there’s nothing harmful about the average person’s level of microplastics, some of us would probably rather not have an average level at all, especially since the overwhelming consensus on the effects of microplastics on health are a resounding “We don’t know yet”.

Microplastics have been found in our blood.

Microplastics have been found in our blood, which to a certain extent implies they are able to move throughout the body once ingested and may be able to interact with the brain. They’ve been found in the placentas of newborns and breastmilk. A disease entirely caused by the ingestion of plastic waste has been identified in sea birds, so it is not beyond the realm of possibility humans are already being affected. Of particular concern is the environment present on and around accumulations of microplastic, which has been found to facilitate pathogen growth and allows such pathogens to spread farther and faster by hitching a ride through the waterways. These circumstances combined allow for horizontal gene transfer between pathogens, allowing for potential cross-species mutations which could then be transmitted at a much faster rate than expected. Sound familiar, anyone?

While bacteria and other organisms which are capable of breaking down microplastics have been discovered in recent years, the amount which is still routinely released into the environment is staggering, as few sincere efforts have been made to curtail their use in manufacturing, packaging, and virtually every other major industry. While some of this is because, again, no distinct health risks or dangers have been linked to microplastic accumulation in the body, it’s also because there’s plenty of money to be made keeping things the way they are now. And honestly, there isn’t much that can be done or worried about right now, given how universal the presence of microplastics has become. Let’s hope that more research is done, to give us a better idea as to just what effects microplastics have on our health, and to what can help us get motivated to deal with this problem long-term.

Galen Lastko, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.