November 29, 2022 — Ben Lewis

Protect your health by understanding how harmful microplastics in humans can be. Scientists have found microplastics in our food and water. Recently, they discovered microplastics in human blood. But, what are microplastics? And, are microplastics in the human body harmful? Let’s examine Microplastics, Inc. in all of its forms.

What Are Microplastics?

 Steel spoonful of colorful microplastics

Microplastics are plastic particles that measure less than five millimeters across. Microplastics result from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic in the environment. They also derive from cosmetic personal care products that include microplastics. Another common source of microplastics is synthetic ropes and broadband cables that dry up and deteriorate over time. 

University of Plymouth’s John Thompson, a marine ecologist, came up with the term “microplastics” in 2004 after his team came across tiny specks of plastic all along British beaches. Microplastics take a long time to decompose, so much so that the first plastics ever made still exist in the environment. 

Microplastic Pollution

Microplastics make their way to some of the most remote regions of the world, miles away from human habitation and industrial activity. Scientists discovered microplastics on the floor of the deepest points in the world’s oceans and on the summit of Mount Everest. Scientists and researchers reckon that microplastics have now infiltrated the Earth’s entire surface. 

The snowball effect of plastic pollution will become one of the most defining developments of the 21st century. The production of plastic worldwide reached close to 367 million tons in 2020. Although efforts are taken to recycle plastic, a lot of it has entered the environment. A study claims that roughly 75% of all the plastic ever manufactured has now become part of the global plastic waste problem.  

Microplastics in the Ocean

Plastic gloved handful of colorful microplastics picked up at the beach

Every year, millions of tons of plastic enter the oceans. At first, experts believed the plastic would float around in huge piles of trash carried by the ocean’s currents. However, recent discoveries show that surface microplastics constitute a very small percentage of the ocean’s microplastic contamination. 

The bulk of microplastics that entered the oceans since the 1950s has disintegrated and fallen to the deepest floors of the ocean. Microplastics can be found in all marine animals, from whales to the smallest creatures in the ocean. Studies show that aquatic animals tend to consume most of the red-colored microplastics in the oceans, mistaking them for food. 

Where Do Microplastics Come From?

Microplastics in humans come from larger pieces of plastic, which consist of organic materials like crude oil, coal, salt, natural gas, and sand. These organic materials become plastic through the process of polymerization or polycondensation. During plastic production, stabilizers, lubricants, and additives are thrown into the mix to make the plastic strong, flexible, and transparent. 

Microplastics enter the environment as:

  • Plastic garbage that breaks down when exposed to the elements 
  • Cosmetic products that use microbeads for exfoliation or intense cleansing 
  • Plastic pellets that were intended to be melted to create plastic products  

Types of Microplastics

Microplastics are classified into two groups: primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are intentionally made for commercial purposes. Secondary microplastics result from the deterioration of plastic garbage in the environment. 

The different types of microplastics found in the environment include:

  • Fibers from cigarette butts, synthetic ropes, and electrical cables 
  • Microbeads in exfoliating gels, soap, and toothpaste 
  • Bits of plastic material that break off larger pieces of plastic 
  • Plastic pellets or nurdles used in industrial manufacturing 
  • Microplastic particles from styrofoam 

Are There Microplastics in Our Food, Water, and Air?

 Sushi rolls with plastic bubblewrap instead of seaweed representing microplastics in food

The first study that focused on plastic in living beings began with the discovery of dead animals with large amounts of undigested plastic in their stomachs. Although scientists only came across microplastics in animals and the environment recently, they knew they would continue to see more of them as they continue their research. Let’s take a look at how extensive this problem has become.

Microplastics in Food

Aquatic animals, including fishes, crustaceans, mammals, and even seabirds mistake microplastics for food and consume them. This means that microplastics eventually travel up the food chain to our dinner plates when we eat seafood. Studies show that eating small fish and shellfish may introduce more microplastics into our system because we often eat them whole without removing the guts. 

Scientists have found microplastics in food like salt, honey, and beer. Experts have also stumbled upon microplastics in natural fertilizers. This means that plants may take in microplastics from the soil. Finally, plastic food containers and packaging sometimes leach microplastics into the food they contain when heated up in the microwave. 

Microplastics in Water

Microplastics exist in both seawater and freshwater. Researchers have sometimes detected microplastics in the water we drink when the water treatment process fails to filter out these microscopic particles. Microplastics in water can also come down as rain because the lightest microplastics are carried up into the clouds by the wind. Microplastics also leach into the water when heated up by the sun. 

A 2017 survey on microplastics in water took 159 samples of drinking water from 14 countries and found that 94% of the drinking water samples from the US contained microplastics. 72% of samples collected from European countries, including Germany, the UK, and France, contained microplastics. 

Microplastics in Air

Airborne microplastics are particles so small they almost appear invisible to the human eye. Microplastics in the air get carried by the wind and can travel around the world in a very short period. This phenomenon means that we may breathe in microplastics without knowing.

A few ongoing studies question whether microplastics in the air can cause climate change. Using an aircraft, experts discovered the presence of microplastics in the atmosphere up to 3.5 kilometers above the earth’s surface. The highest density of airborne microplastics remains in urban areas, especially in global cities like London, New York, Beijing, and others. 

Are Microplastics Harmful to Humans?

In 2022, scientists from the Netherlands and U.K. announced they found microplastics in disparate places within the human body. They discovered microplastics in the bloodstreams of anonymous donors and lower lung lobes of patients. Microplastics have even shown up in breast milk and the placenta of unborn babies. 

Many chemicals and substances used in making plastic are harmful to human beings. Some studies have shown that microplastics in humans can increase the likelihood of allergic reactions and a weakened immune system. However, the research is preliminary and scientists still need more data to understand the full scale of the microplastic problem.

FAQs About Microplastics

Scientist holds a beaker full of microplastics in a solution

What do microplastics do to the human body?

Microplastics in the human body can be found in the blood, lungs, and other organs. The dearth of information obscures the full effects of microplastics in humans. However, experts have indicated that long-term exposure to microplastics can weaken the immune system, aid in the risk of chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes, and cause heart-related complications. 

How do you reduce microplastics in your body?

You can reduce microplastics in your body by practicing some safe strategies. You can start by consuming less processed food, like hamburgers, french fries, ice cream, canned foods, etc. Wrap your food in non-plastic material so that microplastics do not leach into your food. Glass, steel, and bamboo are all safe and eco-friendly, too.  

Are microplastics really harmful?

Microplastics are really harmful because they consist of chemicals and additives toxic to human beings. However, you must take into consideration the length and degree of exposure to microplastics, as well.   

Should I be worried about microplastics?

You should be worried about microplastics because they are everywhere. Microplastics can exist in the air, water, earth, and the human body. There is not enough research on the damaging effects of microplastics in humans, animals, or the environment. It may prove too late to do anything about it when we finally figure it out.

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