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Microplastics: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

“Microplastics” is a term that was first coined in a 2004 paper titled, “Lost at Sea: Where Is All the Plastic?” in reference to microscopic plastic debris. Since then, they have traditionally been described as pieces of plastic smaller than 5 mm- about the size of a number 2 pencil eraser. Small plastic objects that are made at this size are still considered microplastics, but most result from larger plastic pieces degrading. Items such as films, ropes, filaments, sponges, foams, rubber, and microbeads are common sources for this (Friar and Nash 2019).

We are seeing the effect of plastic in oceans around the world. When sea turtles eat grocery bags instead of jellyfish or penguins find themselves caught in soda can rings, we see news articles about it everywhere (remember the Happy Feet movie scene?). Microplastics, on the other hand, don’t make their presence as strongly known due to their size. Without every marine life fatality being analyzed, microplastics can be a silent killer. Reduced food intake, abnormal behavior, genetic damage, delayed growth, and reproduction issues are just the tip of the iceberg (Li et al., 2021). Larger plastic pieces eaten by fish or other marine life may be passed through their system, but they are also travelling to other parts of the body and causing damage. Even if an animal doesn’t grab an old water bottle as a snack, if their prey ingested plastic, they will be eating it as well.

Plastic breaks down on the side of the road, on beaches, even in our garbage cans if we forget to take them out for too long. However, when plastic is directly discarded into the ocean, the water slows this process. If it sinks in water and doesn’t receive sunlight, this process takes much longer than traditional estimations. Plastic contains harmful chemicals that seep out into liquids; seawater is obviously included in this, but animals that eat the plastic are subject to the same chemicals entering their bodies. In 2014, it was estimated that 270,000 tons of plastic particles were floating at sea worldwide (Eriksen et al., 2014)- that’s twenty times as heavy as The Eiffel Tower in Paris, and only counting surface pollution.

On the topic of bad news (and I hate to be the one to break this to you), the amount of microplastics we consume regularly is massive. A publication by Cox et al. in 2019 studied microplastic particles (MP) and how we, as humans, interact with them in our daily lives. In seafood, an average of 1.5 MPs are found per gram. Some other places that microplastics are found in high quantities are sugar, honey, salt, alcohol, and bottled and tap water (the former having much more). Even if you don’t enjoy these regularly, the air we breathe has been shown to contain tiny microplastics which make up more of our yearly MP intake than seafood. The number of microplastic particles eaten or inhaled by children and adults range from an estimated 81,000 to 114,000. I don’t know about you, but that’s about 100,000 particles of microplastic more than I’d like.

Exposure to microplastics in the human body is an ongoing research topic. Since plastic became popular in the 1960’s and 70’s, we are just starting to see the effects of living in a plastic world. Microplastics in a person can lead to autoimmune diseases, brain issues (neurodegenerative diseases), chronic inflammation- which increases the risk of cancer, and much more (Prata et al. 2019). Microplastics have the ability to soak up heavy metals and, when combined with chronic inflammation, can lead to a decrease in a man’s healthy sperm count (D’Angelo and Meccariello, 2021) and increase the risk of health hazards in fetuses still within their mother’s womb (Dutta, 2022). While we don’t have every answer for the effects of microplastic on humans, we know one thing: it doesn’t look great.

Now that you’ve heard the bad tidings, the good part is that we can all reduce our individual microplastic exposure through small changes. Instead of drinking bottled water, try and opt for reusable bottles. Brita filters are a great resource for filtering out contaminants (and microplastics!) from the water we drink. Cosmetics that contain microbeads such as facial scrubs and body wash will inevitably push those particles into our water systems, so avoid those when shopping. Go without single-use plastic packaging when you can (metal and glass are great alternatives), and please: don’t put plastic in the microwave with your food! Everything starts with small conscious changes. Instead of plastic fiber ropes, can you use chain? And I know those paper straws are awful… like truly, absolutely, horrible. They get soggy in your water, and have you ever tried drinking a milkshake with one? If you have sensitive teeth, look for a cheap pack of reusable metal straws that you can throw in your dishwasher after using. If your teeth are fine, I’m going to tell you something that most eco-conscious people forget: just drink from the side of the cup. Microplastics are produced by corporations, so I’m not putting the blame on any individual; I’m simply asking you to make those little switches when you can. Shopping smart and being aware of what you consume and use each day will only benefit you. Everyone has to start somewhere, so let's begin this journey to a healthier, happier life together.


References

Andrady, A. L. (2011). Microplastics in the marine environment. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 62(8), 1596–1605. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2011.05.030

Cox, K. D., Covernton, G. A., Davies, H. L., Dower, J. F., Juanes, F., & Dudas, S. E. (2019). Human consumption of microplastics. Environmental Science & Technology, 53(12), 7068–7074. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.9b01517

D'Angelo, S., & Meccariello, R. (2021). Microplastics: A threat for male fertility. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(5), 2392. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18052392


Eriksen, M., Lebreton, L. C., Carson, H. S., Thiel, M., Moore, C. J., Borerro, J. C., Galgani, F., Ryan, P. G., & Reisser, J. (2014). Plastic pollution in the world's oceans: More than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea. PLoS ONE, 9(12). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0111913

Frias, J. P. G. L., & Nash, R. (2019). Microplastics: Finding a consensus on the definition. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 138, 145–147. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2018.11.022

Li, Y., Sun, Y., Li, J., Tang, R., Miu, Y., & Ma, X. (2021). Research on the influence of microplastics on Marine Life. IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science, 631(1), 012006. https://doi.org/10.1088/1755-1315/631/1/012006

Prata, J. C., da Costa, J. P., Lopes, I., Duarte, A. C., & Rocha-Santos, T. (2020). Environmental exposure to microplastics: An overview on possible human health effects. Science of The Total Environment, 702, 134455. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.134455

Thompson, R. C., Olsen, Y., Mitchell, R. P., Davis, A., Rowland, S. J., John, A. W., McGonigle, D., & Russell, A. E. (2004). Lost at sea: Where is all the plastic? Science, 304(5672), 838–838. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1094559

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