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But what many people don’t know is that we’re doing more than just using plastic. We’re ingesting it, too. When you eat a bite of food or even have a sip of water, you’re almost certainly taking in tiny plastic particles along with it. These ubiquitous fragments are known as microplastics.
Because research into microplastics is so new, there’s not yet enough data to say exactly how they’re affecting human health, says Jodi Flaws, a professor of comparative biosciences and associate director of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Toxicology Program at the University of Illinois.
But “there cannot be no effect,” says Pete Myers, founder and chief scientist of the nonprofit Environmental Health Sciences and an adjunct professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University. It’s likely that ingesting microplastics could further expose us to chemicals found in some plastics that are known to be harmful.
These chemicals have been linked to a variety of health problems, including reproductive harm and obesity, plus issues such as organ problems and developmental delays in children.
Here’s what you need to know about the tiny bits of plastic in our food and water — and what you can do to try to avoid at least some of them.
Why is it in food and water?
Humans have produced more than 8 billion tons of plastic, mostly since the 1950s. Less than 10 percent of it has been recycled.
Over time, much of it has broken down into tiny particles that make their way into lakes, rivers and oceans, eventually contaminating our food and water. And much of our food comes wrapped in plastic, which leads to tiny particles breaking off into our meals.
There is so much plastic all around that we even breathe in tens of thousands of tiny plastic fragments or fibers every year.
How much do people ingest?
One research review published in June calculated that just by eating, drinking and breathing, Americans ingest at least 74,000 microplastic particles every year. Another recent study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund and conducted by researchers at the University of Newcastle in Australia estimated that people consume about 5 grams of plastic a week — roughly the equivalent of a credit card. (That work is still under review.)
How does it affect health?
There is evidence, at least in animals, that microplastics can cross the hardy membrane protecting the brain from many foreign bodies that get into the bloodstream. And there’s some evidence that mothers may be able to pass microplastics through the placenta to a developing fetus, according to research that has not yet been published but was presented at a spring conference at the Rutgers Center for Urban Environmental Sustainability.
Myers says some of these microplastic particles could potentially leach bisphenol A and phthalates. Bisphenols are known to interfere with hormones, and there are studies linking bisphenol exposure to reduced fertility in men and women, Flaws says, noting that phthalates are also known to disrupt hormones, and prenatal exposure to phthalates is linked to lower testosterone in male offspring.
Styrene, another chemical found in plastic and some food packaging, has also been linked to a number of health issues, including nervous system problems, hearing loss and cancer.
Flaws says microplastic particles can also accumulate polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), other chemicals that are linked to harmful health effects, including various cancers, a weakened immune system, reproductive problems and more.
Once these chemicals are inside of us, even low doses may have an effect.
In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a statement recommending that families reduce exposure to these chemicals.
“Plastic products were never designed to end up in our oceans,” the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) said in a statement to Consumer Reports. It added that research has not shown “significant human health impacts” from microplastics, but this is something PLASTICS and experts we spoke with agreed requires further study.
The American Chemistry Council, another industry group, said in a statement to Consumer Reports that plastics used for food packaging must meet strict Food and Drug Administration safety standards. “To help evaluate the safety of our food, FDA reviews safety information on food packaging materials, including whether tiny amounts of substances could potentially migrate from a package into its contents. Through rigorous analysis, the health experts at the FDA have determined these products to be safe for their intended use.”
But not everyone agrees that there’s sufficient oversight. Companies can designate substances that come into contact with food as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) without providing peer-reviewed safety evidence to the FDA, a policy Consumer Reports has previously flagged as something that can put consumers at risk. The 2018 AAP report criticized the long list of chemicals that come into contact with food; that report and Myers say these chemicals should be more strictly regulated.
6 tips to curtail your risks
You can’t totally avoid microplastics or the chemicals found in plastic. But these small steps can help you avoid at least unnecessary extra exposure:
Drink water from your tap. Drinking water is one of the biggest contributors to microplastic ingestion, but 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.
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.
Avoid plastic food containers with known issues. The AAP report noted that recycling codes “3,” “6,” and “7” respectively indicate the presence of phthalates, styrene and bisphenols. It adds that if these products are labeled as “biobased” or “greenware,” they do not contain bisphenols.
Eat more fresh food. Though the levels of microplastics in fresh produce have been largely untested, these products are less likely to expose you to unwanted chemicals, according to the AAP, especially when compared with anything wrapped in plastic.
Minimize household dust. Household dust can expose people to chemicals, including phthalates, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, and flame retardants, Flaws says. Vacuuming regularly can help reduce household dust exposure, according to the Silent Spring Institute.
Think big picture. Individuals can take actions to limit their plastic exposure, Myers says, but large-scale solutions will require reducing the amount of plastic used overall. The experts we spoke with say that consumers should opt for products packaged in glass instead of plastic, use reusable nonplastic containers whenever possible and support policies limiting the use of single-use plastic.
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