Eating, Drinking, and Breathing Plastic
by Kristine Baber
Most people know that plastic pollution is a threat to our environment, particularly our oceans and marine animals. What is less known is that human bodies are also being polluted with plastic. How does this happen? Plastics are virtually indestructible. They do not biodegrade, but rather break down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming microscopic fragments or nanoparticles. These microplastic particles can cross cell membranes in humans and other animals and move into tissues and organs. Even more alarming, these fragments and particles can transport chemicals that are toxic to humans and marine life and can be absorbed by plants, as well. In other words, plastic pollution infects not only the planet’s environment, but also its entire food chain.
Eating A Credit Card of Plastic Every Week?
We are literally eating, drinking, and breathing microscopic particles of plastic. Scientific American writes that these tiny pieces of degraded plastic, synthetic fibers, and plastic beads, collectively called microplastics, have turned up in every corner of the planet—from Florida beach sands to Arctic sea ice, from farm fields to urban air.
Microplastics show up in foods and beverages. It is estimated that people could be unknowingly ingesting 11,000 microfibers each year from eating shellfish such as mussels, clams, and oysters. Research investigating microplastics in beer, salt, honey, and sugar found microplastic particles in every sample tested.
Estimates of our annual microplastics consumption from common foods range from 74,000 to 121,000 particles per person per year. Individuals who drink bottled water may be ingesting an additional 90,000 microplastic particles annually, compared to 4,000 microplastic particles for those drinking only tap water. Based on research such as this, it appears that individuals could be consuming the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic a week.
Microplastics Are Even in the Air
Researchers collected microplastics from 11 national parks and wilderness areas in the western U.S. They learned about how microplastics move around in the air and discovered that more than 1,000 metric tons of microplastics—the weight of 120 million to 300 million plastic water bottles—fall on these relatively isolated areas during a year. These microparticles can carry toxins, heavy metals, and other chemicals that we breathe in. The researchers believed that up to one-quarter of the microscopic pieces of plastic—which come from carpets, clothing, and even spray paint—may originate in storms passing over nearby cities, with the rest coming from more distant locations.
Reduce your Consumption of Mircoplastics
We are still accumulating research about how harmful microplastics are to human health. It is thought that our body flushes out some microplastics through urine, bile, feces, and through other bodily functions. Research in animals, however, demonstrates that it is possible for some plastics to pass from the airway or gastrointestinal tract into the blood or lymphatic system, spreading to and accumulating in other organs. Although all of the effects of consuming microplastics are not
clear, cleaning up plastic pollution most of us
will want to reduce their accumulation in
Consumer Reports suggests reducing the amount of microplastic you ingest by taking the following steps:
Drink tap water. Drinking water is one of the biggest contributors to microplastic ingestion and bottled water has about double the microplastic level of tap water, according to Sherri Mason, sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend and a chemist who has studied plastic in tap water, beer, sea salt, and bottled water. To reduce microplastics in your tap water, consider installing a reverse osmosis filter.
Eat fresh food as much as possible. Try to avoid processed foods and products wrapped in plastic. Even tea bags may contain plastic, so you must be vigilant.
Don’t heat food in plastic. Heated plastics have been known to leach chemicals into food. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends not putting plastic into your dishwasher.
Store food in glass, silicone, or foil. Plastic food containers with the recycling codes 3, 6, and 7 may contain potentially harmful chemicals unless they’re labeled “biobased” or “greenware.”
Vacuum and dust regularly. Minimizing dust in your home can reduce the microfibers and microplastics that you inhale.
Choose alternatives to plastics whenever possible.
If it is necessary to buy plastics or if reusable plastic containers are used to replace single-use plastics, choose products with the codes 1 or 2 which are the most likely to be recycled. The city of Dover recently announced that it will recycle only plastics with recycling codes 1, 2, or 5.
For those truly committed to reducing microplastics in our environment, you can take further steps such as avoiding fleece clothing. Research using household-type washing machines revealed that depending on the washed synthetic garment there could be a release of 640,000–1,500,000 microfibers per wash. A further problem is that the size of these microfibers is small enough that they can pass through wastewater treatment filters, be released into water bodies, and ingested by fish and animals. 100% polyester clothes reached a plateau after 4–5 washing cycles, but high levels of microfibers continued to be released from garments with a mixed composition of polyester/cotton/modal even after 10 wash cycles.
Reduce the Use of Plastic.
Reducing microplastics in our environment and in our bodies ultimately requires that we reduce the amount of plastic in use in our homes and our communities. We can move toward this goal by:
● choosing to use alternatives to plastics,
● politely refusing plastics when offered in commercial establishments, ● reusing or recycling any plastics that we can’t avoid using, ● supporting policies to reduce single-use plastic, and ● holding plastic producers responsible for helping to clean up plastic pollution.
Kristine moved to Dover in 1984 with her husband, Bill, for a position at UNH where she served on the faculties of both Family Studies and Women's Studies. For seven years prior to her retirement, she served as the founding director for the UNH Center on Adolescence which provided research, training, and policy development for those working with and for adolescents. After retirement, she provided research and consultation services and turned her efforts toward local politics. In over a decade with the Dover Dems, she has served as Chair, Vice-Chair, as an at-large delegate on the Executive Committee, and as a member of the Candidate Recruitment and Campaign Committee, the Fundraising Committee, the Energy & the Environment Action Group, and its Plastics Reduction subgroup. She is also a board member of Community Partners, the Strafford County behavioral health and developmental services agency. Kristine is passionate about working for equality, respect for the dignity of all people, and the protection of our environment. Kayaking, hiking, traveling, gardening, and birding are among her leisure activities. She encourages all Democrats in Dover to become involved with the Dover Dems and put their values into action.
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content and the opinions expressed within it. For information on the Dover Democratic Committee, our mission, values and policies, please see “About Us” on this website.
A presentation by the Plastics Subcommittee of the Energy & Environment Committee is here