The Astonishing Truth about Microplastic Consumption
Understanding Microplastics and Strategies for Avoiding their Consumption
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A study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that store-bought plastic water bottles contain 10 to 100 times more microplastics than previously thought. That’s nearly a quarter of a million pieces of nanoplastic per liter of bottled water on average. Eek!
I think we can all agree that we don’t want to be drinking plastic. But what are microplastics, and should we actually be worried about this?
Microplastics (and nanoplastics) are polymer fragments that can range from less than 0.2 inch (5 millimeters) down to 1/25,000th of an inch (1 micrometer). They are divided into two categories: primary and secondary. National Geographic explains the categories thusly: “Primary microplastics are tiny particles designed for commercial use, such as cosmetics, as well as microfibers shed from clothing and other textiles, such as fishing nets. Secondary microplastics are particles that result from the breakdown of larger plastic items, such as water bottles. This breakdown is caused by exposure to environmental factors, mainly the sun’s radiation and ocean waves.”
Microplastics are, essentially, everywhere. They are in your clothing, your cutting board, your lipstick, and your food, from steak to salt to snow peas (apples and carrots are the most contaminated fruit and vegetable, respectively, with over 100,000 microplastics per gram). They are in the soil, the ocean, and the very air you breathe. They are piling up inside marine life, and in 2022, researchers found microplastics in the lungs of living people for the first time.
That was overwhelming just to write. So what does it mean?
According to a study published in May 2023 through the NIH’s National Library of Medicine, “the risk of microplastics to human health depends on the pathway of their exposure, concentration, and the level of their toxicity.”
Microplastics affect human health in three ways: chemical, physical, and biological. The chemical effects lead to reproductive and developmental toxicities, allergies, carcinogenicity, and immunotoxicity. Physical effects include inflammation, respiratory problems, oxidative stress, cytotoxicity, and lipid accumulation. Biological effects are seen in the form of infections, antimicrobial resistance as well as gut dysbiosis.
There are several ways to avoid consuming microplastics:
1. Reduce consumption of plastic-packaged foods: Choose fresh, unpackaged foods or items that come in glass, metal, or paper packaging instead of plastic. This reduces the likelihood of plastic particles contaminating your food. Try getting your organic produce at farmers’ markets and bring your own glass packaging.
2. Use natural fiber food storage: Avoid storing food in plastic containers or using plastic wraps. Opt for glass, ceramic, or stainless steel containers or food wraps made from natural fibers like beeswax wraps.
3. Minimize use of plastic utensils: Avoid using plastic cutlery and stirrers as they can release microplastics when in contact with hot food or beverages. Instead, use reusable utensils made from wood, bamboo, or metal.
4. Avoid drinking from plastic bottles: Use a reusable water bottle made from glass or stainless steel instead of single-use plastic bottles. Plastic bottles can release microplastics over time, especially when exposed to heat.
5. Choose natural fibers for tea bags: Some tea bags are made from plastic-containing materials like nylon or polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which can release microplastics when steeped in hot water. Opt for loose tea or look for tea bags made from natural fibers like cotton or hemp.
6 . Filter your tap water: Use a water filter that is certified to remove microplastics. This can help reduce the amount of microplastic contamination in your drinking water, which can also indirectly affect your food.
7. Be cautious while reheating food in plastic containers: When reheating food, transfer it to a microwave-safe glass or ceramic container instead of using plastic containers. Heat can cause plastic to break down and release more microplastics into your food.
8. Eat whole, unprocessed foods: Processed foods, especially those that undergo extensive packaging or manufacturing processes, are more likely to be contaminated with microplastics. Choosing whole, unprocessed foods can help reduce your exposure.
9. Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly: Prior to consuming fruits and vegetables, wash them under running water to remove any surface contaminants, including microplastics. Using a scrub brush can be especially helpful for items like potatoes and carrots.
10. Stay informed: Keep yourself updated on scientific research and regulatory measures regarding microplastics in food. This can help you make more informed choices and adapt your habits accordingly.
Remember that while these steps may help reduce your exposure to microplastics, it is challenging to entirely eliminate them from our environment. Hence, advocating for sustainable practices, reducing plastic waste, and supporting initiatives to address the issue at its source are also crucial in the long run.
Until next week, Age and Prosper!