We’re All a Little Plastic on the Inside

By Nathaniel Scharping | September 11, 2017 3:03 pm
Microplastic beads. (Credit: 5Gyres/Oregon State University)

Microplastic beads. (Credit: 5Gyres/Oregon State University)

You’re made of water, bone, blood, muscle and fat; you’re also a few parts plastic.

That is, if you prefer sea salt on your meal. Or honey, shellfish, beer or tap water. Recent studies have found microplastics, tiny shards of degraded plastic, in them all. Even the air is filled with the minuscule plastic bits.

Plastic Not-So-Fantastic

Hold off on the panic though; it’s still too early for researchers to say what the effects of microplastic consumption are, although preliminary studies in animals suggest that they can certainly cause harm. In humans, though, it’s a bit harder to study because nearly everyone has microplastics in their bodies, so there’s no control group for comparison.

The pieces themselves seem relatively benign — they’re just tiny bits of plastic, looking in large quantities like so much sand, created as larger plastic objects gradually degrade. NOAA defines a microplastic as anything plastic under 5 millimeters — large enough to see easily with the human eye, although many can be microscopic. Most are small enough to pass through the digestive system without causing harm, but they can also hold on to and deliver pollutants inside our bodies, something the animal studies supported.

There’s been evidence that microplastics have been infiltrating our bodies for a few years now: A 2013 study found them in German honey and sugar, 2014 saw them pop up in some shellfish and beer, and in 2015 they were found in Chinese table salt and took to the air in Paris. The latest such research also examines salt — an April study found microplastic particles in 16 of 17 brands of sea salt, and a recent Guardian article details more work in the same vein.

Here and Gone

In most cases, the levels of microplastics were quite low — with the notable exception of shellfish. Regular and even excessive consumers of salt, beer and honey will only ingest a few thousand particles a year at most from those sources, and we’ll never notice their fleeting passage. The point though, is that these products come from very different places, which is an indication that microplastics are far more pervasive than we might think. Plastic in the air brings new concerns as well, as it can enter the lungs and spread through the environment more readily.

And those shellfish? The study found the average European could consume up to 11,000 pieces of microplastic from them annually.

Although the impact of microplastics on our health aren’t settled, their ubiquity is a growing concern. It will likely only get worse, too. A July study found that humanity has produced some 9 billion tons of plastic so far, the majority of which has ended up as trash. We’re on track to have thrown around 13 billion tons away by 2050, and that will only translate into more microplastics. An international team of researchers estimated in 2014 that there are around 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the ocean, weighing 250,000 tons.

Bit by bit, it will break down and make its way back to us.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
MORE ABOUT: pollution
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  • Really_quite_old_and_whipped

    Therefore it is my prophecy that sometime within the next hundred years most of you are going to die, like be dead.

    • OWilson

      But, thanks to plastics, you will be living longer, having more fun, and looking better when you die! :)

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        We must examine the social intent of shed fibers, lower classes’ polyester versus elites’ cotton and silk.

    • jsvb1

      most or all?? lolololol

  • Rebecca Riehm

    What happens to the plastics, micro and otherwise, after millions of years?

    • FluffyGhostKitten

      If it doesn’t break down completely, they’ll be some very strange-looking rocks in the future. Otherwise, it’ll eventually return to its native state (crude oil). That probably will take several million years.

  • FluffyGhostKitten

    Suddenly I’m wondering if my taste for oysters is related to my childhood pica. Although I preferred paper to plastic.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Ban washing clothes (fiber release not scrubbed by sewage treatment) and cigarette filters (one trillion decorating the oceans, shedding cellulose 2.5 acetate fibers). OTOH, the lungs of filter cigarette smokers are infused with those fibers – and they hang on for 20 years before pulmonary fibrosis.

  • David Jansen

    The virus called “humans” was created to make plastic by the Earth. The Earth needs plastic for some reason (why we will never know), so it grew a “Human Virus” that produces and uses and discards plastic in its normal course of living. As the “Human Virus” grows to cover the Earth it makes more and more plastic. When the Earth has enough plastic to do what it needs with it, it will kill off this “Human Virus” that has served its purpose in the evolution of the Earth. Hey, it as good as a theory as any… ;+)

    • ChilloneG

      Lol! Nice! Doesn’t sound strange at all.

  • Sam Lehman-Wilzig

    Perhaps we can make plastic that does NOT degrade? That way the fish won’t eat it, we don’t eat it (or them), and eventually it will be easier to gather most of the plastic residue from the oceans — and hyper-burn it in safe factories (for energy), or recycle the plastic itself.

    • Maia

      The more a plastic is made to resist wear and tear, the more noxious chemicals are involved. Not possible to make anything non-degradable, but the effort makes things even worse, in the long run. We need to cut down on manufacturing and sales of plastics, period.

    • Chris TMC

      Just the opposite… plastics wouldnt be AS bad if they easily broke down into simpler materials instead of just breaking into tiny pieces physically.

      • Maia

        Simpler AND non-toxic.

  • Alan

    What is needed is a robust recycling program, planned out from beginning to end of plastic life cycle so that nothing can be manufactured without a guaranteed way to recycle it at the end. This will dramatically add to the cost of plastics, but will be cheaper than the health and environmental costs of the future.

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