Are microplastics the new health concern?

You’ll find them in everything from water bottles to take-out containers and even in the air you breathe, but are microplastics really a cause for concern?

Did you know that this week alone, it’s likely you swallowed a teaspoon-sized lump of plastic? You’d think you’d notice something like that, but the pieces were so small, they crept in without you realising. They’re called microplastics, which are tiny pieces of plastic, measuring between five millimeter and one micrometre (a thousandth of a millimetre) in diameter.

“There are two main ways these enter the environment — when tiny fragments shed from items containing plastic as we use them, or when larger pieces of plastic degrade,” says environmental researcher Dr Thava Palanisami from The University of Newcastle. These particles then enter the air you breathe, the food you eat and the liquid you drink — and they can do it in some pretty scary numbers.

A recent study by McGill University in Canada found that a plastic tea bag brewing in 95°C water releases 11.6 billion microplastic particles (and over three billion smaller ones) into the cup — the highest amount found in a food stuff so far.

The cumulative intake from food, air and liquid recently led Dr Palanisami to estimate that every week the average person consumes around 2000 tiny pieces of plastic less than one millimeter in size; stick these all together and it would be kind of the same as chewing and swallowing your credit card!

But does it matter? Just because you’re consuming these microplastics, does that mean they’re also doing you harm?

Well, let’s start with the good news. The World Health Organization recently examined the health threat from microplastics in drinking water and said that right now, based on the limited information it has, they don’t appear to pose a health risk.

“Your body comes into contact with small particles every single day and it’s likely it’s evolved a way to handle some of these,” says Professor Kevin Thomas, from the Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Queensland. “In the scheme of things, microplastic particles are actually relatively large and it’s entirely possible that they simply just pass out of your body without doing any damage.”

In fact, the WHO report categorically states that microplastics larger than 150 micrometres are unlikely to be absorbed in the human body, while the uptake of smaller particles is likely to be limited. But, then it adds a stinger with this statement: “Absorption and distribution of very small microplastic particles, including in the nano size range, may, however, be higher.”

Cause for concern

Nanoplastics are microplastics’ tiny baby sibling, which are produced when microplastics break down — and they’re so small they may pass through your gut or lung wall and into your bloodstream.

“We really don’t know for sure as it’s incredibly hard to research this, but we’re basing our suspicions on what happened when plastics were used in medical treatments like hernia or joint repair,” says ecotoxicologist Dr Mark Browne, from the University of New South Wales.

He goes on to explain that plastic particles from these caused reactions in the immune system of some people and led to inflammation and the formation of scar tissue. And while they don’t know if this is happening with plastics that are ingested, rather than those directly placed in the body, Prof Browne says it’s important they try to find out. Dr Palanisami also suspects that the unnatural shape of microplastic particles may trigger your immune system to act against them, leading to inflammation.

He’s also concerned about the makeup of the plastic, noting: “Microplastics are known to accumulate harmful chemical additives during manufacture — like Bisphenol A [BPA], which is a potential carcinogen, and phthalates, which can be endocrine disruptors — and many also absorb pollutants from the surrounding environment. Many of these associated chemicals are recognised priority pollutants with known adverse health effects.”

Again, right now, they don’t know for sure that these collect in human tissue (although they have been found in animals), or that the chemicals cause health issues if they do collect, but the experts all agree that they need to keep investigating.

Like what you see? Sign up to our bodyandsoul.com.au newsletter for more stories like this.

Anti-plastic action plan

So, while you’re waiting for all this research to happen — which could take years, even decades — what should you do?

“I’d suggest minimising your exposure to microplastics as far as possible by finding alternatives to plastic where you can,” says Dr Palanisami. This means keeping up with general plastic-reducing advice like avoiding plastic bags, skipping straws and disposable cutlery and using a reusable water bottle.

There’s also a few surprising ways you can reduce your exposure to microplastics you may not have considered — like cutting back on salt. Dr Palanisami explains that when seawater is evaporated to make salt, it leaves behind microplastic fibres in the grains. Also check those tea bags — brands in Australia that don’t use plastic include T2 and Pukka, or just swap to loose tea in a pot.

Synthetic fabrics like nylon contain plastic fibres, so it will help to buy natural ones like cotton when you can. And you may also want to consider vacuuming more often. It’s estimated each person eats up to 70,000 pieces of microplastic a year from dust that settles on the food you eat!

That last example, however, proves how hard it is to avoid exposure to microplastics altogether — you’d need to live in a (non-plastic) bubble. But if you can avoid goods made from plastic as much as possible, intercept fibres by using filtration (on things like water taps) and do your bit for the environment by becoming an eco-warrior and encouraging your friends and family to be more eco-aware, you can at least limit exposure. And that’ll have to do for now.

3 more ways to win the war on microplastics

It’s important to limit your use of plastic in general. Here’s how you can create a more eco-friendly footprint…

#1. Wash your clothes less often

One load of washing releases 750,000 pieces of plastic into the water. Since a recent report by clothing brand Icebreaker found that 49 per cent of Aussies wash their T-shirt after just one wear, it wouldn’t hurt to stretch it out a little longer.

#2. Don’t flush contact lenses

US research found that up to 20 per cent of people flush their contacts, which releases around 23 metric tonnes of plastic into the water system every year. Don’t send anything into the sewer that isn’t supposed to be there.

#3. Say a big no to microbeads

Products that contain microbeads, like shower gels, exfoliants or toothpastes, can send up to 100,000 plastic particles down the sink in one use. Rather choose products that use natural ingredients, like salt, sugar or bamboo.