The Microplastic Menace

by State Brief

Microplastics are, quite literally, everywhere. You may think you know this already. But you probably don’t appreciate, not fully, the extent to which microplastics have invaded every corner of the planet and every corner of our bodies. Like I say, they’re everywhere—and I mean everywhere.

I want to tell you more about the nature of the microplastic menace, but also provide you with some easy advice you can follow to protect yourself and your loved ones against it. Although the scale of the problem can seem insurmountable, you can drastically reduce your exposure to plastic, and therefore the amount that will end up in your body, even if you can’t totally eliminate it. And in an imperfect world, that’s about the best we can hope for anyway.

More than nine billion tons of plastic are estimated to have been produced between 1950 and 2017, with over half of that total having been produced since 2004. The vast majority of plastic ends up in the environment in one form or another, where it breaks down, through weathering, exposure to UV light and organisms of all kinds, into smaller and smaller pieces—microplastics and their even trickier brethren, nanoplastics. These are “secondary” microplastics, because they start off big and end up small, but there’s a whole class of “primary” microplastics which are small by design, like so-called “microbeads” used in cosmetics, and they’re no less serious a problem. Within our homes, microplastics are mainly produced when synthetic fibres from clothes, furnishings and carpets are shed. They accumulate in large quantities in dust and float around in the air, which we then inhale. More on this in a moment.

Let’s start with two studies that help to illustrate the threat in its fullest dimensions. From hereon I’m just going to use the term “microplastics” as a catch-all, unless I have to talk about nanoplastics in particular.

The first study hit the news a couple of years ago, when it was revealed that thousands of tons of microplastics fall over Switzerland each year in snow. Researchers collected portions of snow deposited at the tip of the Hoher Sonnenblick mountain in Austria, where there has been an observatory since 1886. They then used a mass spectrometer to identify precise quantities of microplastics in the samples.

According to the researchers’ calculations, 43 trillion pieces of microplastic land on Switzerland every year, the equivalent of 3,000 tons. Using meteorological data, the researchers were also able to discover that around 30% of the microplastics identified came from mostly urban areas within a distance of 130 miles of Hoher Sonnenblick. Up to 10% of the microplastics may have come from winds and weather taking place in the Atlantic, 1,200 miles away.

The study illustrates two important points: i) that nowhere on earth, however remote, is untouched by microplastic pollution—not even the Antarctic—and ii) that microplastics circulate as a kind of “force of nature,” as part of natural systems—wind, precipitation, river and sea currents—on a grand scale. Animals, from birds and fish to insects like ants, bees and mosquitoes, are also natural vehicles for microplastics to be moved, even over long distances.

The second study, which has just been released in pre-print form, shows that microplastics are now to be found in quantity inside people’s eyeballs. Yes, that’s right: there’s probably plastic in your eyeballs right now. And, no, before you ask, you can’t remove it with tweezers.

Researchers from China took tissue samples from the eyes of 49 different people suffering from a range of eye conditions and subjected them to complicated analytical techniques. The results of the analysis showed that there were nearly 1800 plastic pieces, mainly of a size of 50 μm (1/20th of a millimetre) or less, in those samples. The plastic fibres were principally nylon, polyvinyl chloride and polystyrene. That’s an average of 35 fibres per sample. The real quantity in each eyeball is likely to have been much higher, because samples, rather than the whole eyeball, were used, and the samples are likely to have been small. Exactly how small is unclear, since I could only read the study’s abstract at time of writing.

In addition to the presence of the plastic pieces, the researchers noted that there was a close association between the levels of microplastics in each sample and the severity of the visual problems suffered by the patient it was taken from. So: the more microplastics you have in your eyes, the more likely you’ll have problems with your sight. This shouldn’t be a surprise.

The real question is, how did the plastic get there in the first place?

Internally, via the blood, is the most obvious route. The eye has a massive network of blood vessels running over and through it, and we know that microplastics get into the blood, usually from the gut and lungs, and from there reach all the major organs of the body. Studies have shown that microplastics are found in human heart, liver, lung, genital and womb tissue. Animal studies have also shown that microplastics cross the blood-brain barrier, the brain’s only line of defence against pathogens and harmful substances. Polystyrene microplastics fed to mice ended up in their brains within two hours. Another study showed that inhaled nanoplastics also end up in the brains of mice.

Another possibility is that plastics enter the eye from its outer surface, first by coming into contact with the front of the eye and then, due to blinking, migrating to the sides and back of the eye, where there are large numbers of exposed blood vessels. In addition to floating microplastics in the air, contact lenses could also transfer significant quantities of plastic onto the surface of the eye. A pair of reusable contact lenses has been estimated to shed over 90,000 plastic particles in a year of wear.

An even-more-disconcerting possibility is that microplastics are in our eyes from the moment of birth. A new piece of research shows that when pregnant mice are fed polystyrene nanoplastics in drinking water at “environmentally realistic concentrations,” they end up in the eyes of their offspring, where they interfere with the proper development and function of the eyes. Microplastics have been shown to cross the placental barrier from mother to baby in humans, and they’ve also been found in the amneotic fluid in which baby floats for the duration of its term.

Horrible, right?

The true depth of the horror is only just starting to become apparent. New studies are appearing at a steady pace, linking microplastic exposure to virtually every disease and malady you can think of, from irritable bowel syndrome, obesity and autism, to cancer, Alzheimer’s and infertility. There’s a very real chance that the explosion of chronic disease we’ve seen over the last century in the developed world is a direct result of our growing exposure to plastic and plastic chemicals. It’s worth remembering that the first fully synthetic plastic—Bakelite—was only manufactured in 1907, but plastic didn’t really start to be used in massive quantities until the middle of the century.

The infertility crisis is particularly dire, with one reproductive health expert, Professor Shanna Swan, warning that as early as 2045, man could be unable to reproduce by natural means. On current trends, the median sperm count is set to reach zero in that year, which means that one half of all men will produce no sperm at all, and the other half will produce so few they might as well produce none—they certainly won’t be able to get a woman pregnant, no matter how much they try. Professor Swan believes exposure to plastics is a significant cause of the crisis, as she lays out in her recent book Count Down.

These wide-ranging negative effects happen for a number of reasons. First there are the actual properties of the microplastics themselves: they can physically block narrow tissues, cause inflammation and immune response and also absorb substances, including hormones like testosterone, rendering them inaccessible to the body. Then there’s the fact that plastics act as vectors for harmful endocrine-disrupting, obesogenic and carcinogenic chemicals, allowing them to be carried into every one of the body’s tissues, where they can cause all sorts of damage.

So what can we do?

There’s an old saying: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In the case of microplastics, prevention may be worth even more than a pound of cure, because it’s not actually clear how you can cure microplastic exposure, at least if by “cure” you mean, “get microplastics out of your body once they’re already inside it.” There may be natural processes that slowly, or even quickly, rid the body’s tissues of accumulated plastic, but if they exist we don’t know about them yet. At present, we can only assume that whatever plastic is already in your brain or liver or eyes will stay there. We don’t know of any substances that can be taken to extract microplastics either, so don’t believe anybody who’s trying to sell you a supplement that will do that.

An important thing to know is that the microplastics you consume don’t necessarily get inside your body, if you catch my drift. You may have seen the headline, “humans are swallowing a credit card’s worth of plastic a week,” but a lot of that credit card, if you swallow it in food or drink, will pass directly out of your body in your urine and feces. In one end, out the other. Obviously, we can’t feed humans plastic to quantify the exact proportion that passes through, but we can extrapolate from animal studies and we can also make rough guesses.

Even so, microplastics do get in to your body via your food and drink, and they also get in to your body by inhalation. Some microplastics that get in to your lungs when you inhale may leave when you exhale—again, we don’t know how many—but otherwise they either remain in the tissues of the lungs or enter the bloodstream and migrate to other parts of the body.

As the evidence mounts, it’s becoming more and more clear i) that the home is the site of greatest exposure to microplastics, and ii) that inhalation is probably the main route of exposure there. Early estimates of microplastic exposure at home have been revised after further research suggested exposure levels may be 100 times higher than previously thought.

What does this mean? Well, it means that if you sit down to eat a bowl of farmed or wild-caught mussels at home, the microplastics you consume from the food will be minimal compared to the microplastics you’ll inhale while you’re eating, as this study shows. Mussels are filter feeders that just sit there, never moving, and the seas and oceans are full of plastic, so you’d expect them to be full to the brim with microplastics, but actually it’s the air in your own home you should be worried about.

Microplastics in the home generally come from synthetic fibres: clothing, carpets and furnishings. They accumulate in dust and circulate in the air. Babies and very young children are particularly at risk from microplastics in the home, because they’re close to the ground, where all the dust accumulates. They just crawl around, hoovering it up all day. Infants have ten times the numbers of microplastics in their feces than adults. The best thing you can is to reduce synthetic fibres throughout the home and also hoover more regularly. Babies are also at particular risk of plastic consumption because they’re given plastic toys to chew, fed with plastic utensils (that they also chew) and also, increasingly, given food that’s stored and then heated in “convenient” plastic pouches that release billions of plastic fragments into the food.

This brings us nicely on to food, and highlights the fact that food storage is probably the biggest issue when it comes to contamination of food with plastic. Food that comes into contact with plastic at any stage of its production, transport, sale or storage will be contaminated with plastic. How much depends on a variety of factors. A foundational piece of advice I give to anybody who asks me for advice is to ditch processed food. A nice working definition of processed food is “food that’s prepared outside the home, contains ingredients you wouldn’t typically find in a normal home kitchen”—and I don’t mean special spices or exotic ingredients: I mean additives like stabilisers, humectants, preservatives, colour dyes etc.—”and is sold to you pre-packaged, wrapped in plastic.” Processed food is laced with seed and vegetable oils, hidden sugars, toxic additives, endocrine disruptors and microplastics. Ditch it. Completely. If you prepare your own fresh, locally sourced food, you will significantly reduce your consumption of plastic.

Chuck out plastic Tupperware containers and buy some glass ones. Use brown-paper or silicone bags for storage rather than plastic bags. Instead of greaseproof paper, get some muslin and wax it with beeswax. Wherever there’s plastic in your kitchen, try and find an alternative: utensils, pans—especially “non-stick” coated pans—everything, or at least as much as you can. Chances are, there is at least one alternative and it’s not actually expensive or an inconvenience, not really.

The same applies to drink as to food. If it’s in plastic, don’t buy it. Don’t store liquids in plastics. If you want to take a drink to the gym, get a glass or metal bottle.

Municipal tap water isn’t actually much of a worry, at least as far as microplastics are concerned, but you should be filtering your drinking water, preferably with a reverse-osmosis filter. Bottled water, on the other hand, absolutely is a worry for microplastics. In fact, bottled water is one of the worst sources of microplastic exposure for anybody who drinks it regularly. Back in 2018, we were told that a litre of bottled water might contain 325 pieces of plastic on average, but new detection techniques have revealed the number is actually more like 250,000.

Like I said at the beginning of this piece, it’s easy to feel that the problem is insurmountable, especially when you’ve been subjected to a sustained barrage of research about how microplastics are in your brain and your eyes and they fall in rain and snow and bees deposit them in your honey and oh there’s an ant and if you look really closely there’s a piece of plastic in its jaws… Sorry, but it’s the only way to impress on you the scale of the problem. It is a enormous problem and none of us can get away from it. But it’s not insurmountable. Of course, we need governments to start doing something about plastic pollution, fast, but in the meantime there are simple things you can do, in your own life, to protect yourself and your loved ones from the menace of microplastics.

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