How far do the microplastics that we unknowingly inhale, eat, and drink penetrate our intestines and lungs and get deposited in other organs? What are the real repercussions of the plastic in the air we breathe, the water we drink, or the food we breathe? Are our bodies sufficiently strong enough to withstand the vulnerable parts of our body, our brain, heart, lungs or are we allowing them to overwhelm our body and invite a host of new diseases in the process?
Studies on animals have already shed light on this process, revealing that the smallest plastic particles are capable of reaching even the fetus in pregnant mice. Microplastics are pervasive in the water and food of modern humanity. They have impacted our living world, affecting almost every level of biological beings. Here we consider the potential effect of microplastics on our health.
Microplastics Enter Our Body Through Multiple Avenues
Environmental engineer Dunzhu Li stopped microwaving his food after he learned that plastic containers release microplastics. It is the same with feeding bottles and kettles. The findings were alarming but the extent of the harm it does to humans was unknown. Many equated it to the dust we inhale and ingest regularly, implying that it exited the body just as easily. But it is not so.
Varieties Of Microplastics
The composition of plastics is variable and each affects humans in different ways. And they also contain a wide variety of additives such as water repellants, flame retardants, ultraviolet stabilizers, pigments, softeners (phthalates), and stiffness such as bisphenol-A.
Most plastics are single-use and become a waste the moment we use them. But its durability ensures that it continues to pollute for decades and even centuries.
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And with each passing year as more plastic gets discarded, the durability of plastics ensures that the resultant pollution increases exponentially. Annual microplastics produced are as high as 400 million tons, and it is anticipated to reach an alarming proportion by 2050, doubling in quantity produced each year.
Microplastics are ubiquitous as they are produced from synthetic fibers, waste incineration, dust re-suspension, traffic and industrial emissions, fragmentation, and degradation of various plastic products.
How Do Microplastics Affect Human Health?
We are surrounded by microplastics and get exposed to them through ingestion, inhalation, and even through dermal absorption as they are omnipresent in water, food, air, and consumables.
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Scientists say that we might ingest as many as 100,000 microplastic bits every day. That would be approximately the bulk of an ATM card in the space of a year.
the synthetic clothes we wear also shed microplastics. Studies indicate that such fibers are one of the major sources of airborne particles.
With scant research done to study the effect microplastics have on humans, the study so far has been confined to animals such as rats and mice, or human tissues and cells.
From the data available to us, microplastics are certainly hazardous to human health. They cause irritation, in the same way as asbestos fibers can cause lung inflammation, and even be carcinogenic. Microplastics have also been found to act as toxic chemicals and microorganism vectors, thus compounding the health risks they pose.
Research has revealed that they can cause metabolic disturbance and neurotoxicity. It has also been seen that microplastics play the role of endocrine disruptors, which cause interference with the normal function of hormones and can lead to potential weight gain.
Microplastics like flame retardants have been found to inhibit brain development in the fetus and can retard the normal brain growth of a child.
Marine Microplastics: Coming Back Through The Food Chain
Scientists have been studying the potential hazards of microplastics for over 2 decades. Most studies that have been undertaken thus far have been focused on the menace they pose to all marine life forms. We know more about marine microplastics than airborne microplastics.
Marine microplastics were identified in a variety of aquatic organisms from the tiny zooplankton to the mighty whales. Even the term, microplastics, was coined by a marine ecologist. Richard Thompson of the University of Plymouth coined the term in 2004.
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These minuscule marine particles can move into the tissues, cells, and organs of the human body from these marine animals. Regulators are now trying to quantify the human exposure to such marine microplastics and quantify the risk that they pose to humans.
But the challenging part is assessing the actual risk they pose to our health. With ingested microplastics, the degree of toxicity is directly linked with how quickly they exit our body. And r researchers are beginning to address this issue.
Microplastics Found Affecting Human Organs And Blood
Microplastics have been detected in human blood, with close to 80% of tests showing traces of the tiny particles.
The discovery reveals that microplastics can travel through the body, getting lodged in human organs. Their impact, both short-term and long-term, on human health is unknown as yet. But there are concerns that microplastics can cause harm to cells in humans, just as air pollutants are already leading to millions of deaths every year.
An analysis of 22 anonymous healthy donors revealed microplastics in 17 of the samples. 50% of the samples contain PET plastic that is found in water bottles. A third of the sample contained polystyrene, which is used in food packaging and other uses. 25% of the samples had polyethylene, used to make plastic bags.
The reasons for concerns are greater when we consider that baby feces have been found to contain higher levels of microplastics, even 10 times is several cases, than adults. Babies fed with plastic bottles are ingesting millions of particles every day. It need not be said that babies children are a lot more exposed and vulnerable to particle and chemical exposure.
The most worrying issue is how much of that plastic is retained by the body. And how much of it ends up in certain organs. There is also the danger that they might enter the brain through the bloodstream.
Studies have shown that microplastics attach to the outer membranes of RBCs. They limit the ability to carry oxygen. Microplastics have even been found in the placentas of pregnant women. In pregnant rats, they have been found to move rapidly into their brains, hearts, and various other organs.
More studies are needed to assess the effect of microplastics and nano-plastics on the processes and structures of our bodies. There are indications that they induce carcinogenesis, and can transform cells. With plastics production on the increase, research has to be more detailed and should eventually lead to affirmative action by the authorities.