Plastic is almost certainly in your food or drinking water, and scientists are now concerned that it may be coursing through your veins.
Microplastics — plastic fragments smaller than a sesame seed — were found in the blood of 17 out of 22 people, according to a small study published last month. It’s the first time those tiny bits of fossil-fuel product have been found in human blood, but plastics researchers aren’t surprised.
“Plastics are everywhere,” said Rolf Halden, director of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering.
Microplastics have been found in humans’ food, drinking water, poop, placentas, and lungs, as well as drifting through the air we breathe, according to previous research. According to a 2019 study, the average American consumes about 50,000 microplastic particles per year and inhales roughly the same amount. According to a study from 2021, the average person consumed the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic each week.
“I expect we’ll all be exposed in the end,” says Marja Lamoree, a chemist at Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit who coauthored the study that discovered microplastics in blood.
The long-term health effects of that exposure are unknown. Common chemicals in plastics, such as bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, fertility and development issues, and hormone disruption in studies. According to one study, microplastics in human guts can cause harmful inflammation and initiate cancer-related processes. Another study discovered that the particles changed the way human lung cells functioned.
Recycling, which has been a popular solution to plastic pollution for a long time, is not protecting us. Indeed, some researchers believe it is a source of distraction.
“I’m usually the person in the room who doesn’t like recycling at birthday parties,” Lamoree said. “I believe it is far preferable to replace the type of plastic with a more sustainable alternative.”
According to a UN Environment Programme study from 2020, less than 10% of the world’s 7 billion metric tons of plastic waste has ever been recycled. According to an investigation by NPR and PBS, this is partly because it is cheaper to make new plastic from oil or gas. Furthermore, plastic degrades every time it is recycled, according to the report, and can only be reused once or twice. These issues have remained unsolved despite decades of technological advancement.
“For the most part, recycling has failed,” Halden said.
Even if more plastic was recycled, it is unlikely that it would prevent it from accumulating in human bodies. Plastics that we use on a daily basis are shedding microscopic bits and invisible chemicals into our food, water, and air, according to recent research. Those plastics can’t be recycled because they’re hidden.
“It’s in our food, our clothing, and the textiles we use in our homes. It is something we walk on, play on, sleep on, and wear “Heather Leslie, a chemist and eco-toxicologist who oversaw the microplastics in blood study. “As long as we’re using this stuff, little pieces of it will come free.”
Industry should instead replace plastics with less toxic materials that won’t persist in the environment for decades or centuries, according to Leslie and Halden. Builders can use wood or tile instead of vinyl flooring, and twigs instead of polypropylene can be used to make brooms, according to Leslie. However, substitutions for many medical devices, vehicles, electronics, food-safety packaging, and other items that people use on a daily basis may be more difficult. Researchers are developing alternative materials made from more biodegradable sources such as mushrooms, bamboo, sugar, and fish waste, though they are far from replacing plastics on a large scale.
“I believe there is an answer. It’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s “Leslie remarked. “I have a lot of faith in human ingenuity that we’ll be able to do it.”