What are microplastics’ effects on humans?

Author: Jacob Larkin

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that are often released into the environment from products like cosmetics and clothing. They can also be created when larger pieces of plastic break down. One of the major discoveries is the presence of microplastics in the human body – what are the long-term impacts of this?

There is still much to be learned about the effects of microplastics on humans, and the problem is becoming increasingly apparent.

The dangers of microplastics

While we can not yet measure the impacts of ingesting microplastics, the consequences of ingesting the tiny particles at an increasing rate can be assumed to be dangerous. Studies have shown that exposure to microplastics can lead to toxic chemicals entering the bloodstream, as well as potential health risks from ingesting dangerous particles.

Microplastics are spread easily due to how they are created – through the use of plastic products, such as bottles, bags and containers, and even through washing clothes made from plastic blends. Due to this, it is highly likely that we are due to see a rapid increase in the number of microplastics created, and subsequently, the amounts found in the human bloodstream.

The Plastic Health Coalition reports that long-term exposure to microplastics can lead to serious health risks, including hormone disruption and damage to our organs and immune system. While the research is still in its early stages, it is clear that microplastic exposure must be addressed in order to protect human health.

Additionally, various sources – including National Geographic – have reported that many plastic products that are produced and shipped all over the world are made with toxic chemicals, which may have significant health impacts once they build up in human and animal bodies. In an experiment conducted in Australia, quail chicks were fed small doses of the toxins – equivalent to what may be found in humans in the near future – and it was reported that they ‘suffered minor delays in growth and maturation.’

Another concern that the microplastic issue raises is how susceptible plastics are to colonisation by microorganisms, such as vibrio cholera – the pathogen that causes cholera in humans. Evidence of this has been found in microplastic samples taken from the North Sea. This means microplastics could also contribute to the spreading of disease.

How do microplastics enter the human body?

Microplastics can enter the human body in a variety of ways. Any plastic container has a chance of shedding microplastics into the food or drink it is holding. One of the most direct sources of microplastic ingestion is from consuming contaminated seafood, as small pieces of plastic have been found to contaminate fish and shellfish. Additionally, microplastics have been found in drinking water, with some estimates suggesting that 93% of bottled water samples were contaminated with microplastics.

In some cases, microplastic fibres have been observed to become airborne. While a study conducted by the University of Plymouth found that it is much more common to ingest microplastics through seafood than inhalation, this poses questions about how safe houses with clothes and furniture made from plastic blends will become in the future.

Despite the Environmetal Protection (Microbeads) (England) Regulations 2017 – which banned microbeads from certain cosmetic products and toothpaste – more needs to be done, as microbeads are not banned in many types of makeup and moisturisers, and microbeads can also be found in detergents and fragrances.

The 2017 ban does not cover liquid waste that is produced by industries and does not apply to secondary microplastics – those created by the breakdown of larger plastic items.

How can we reduce our exposure to microplastics

One of the best ways to reduce our exposure to microplastics is to be more conscientious about what we buy and use. We can avoid using single-use plastics, such as straws, grocery bags and water bottles, instead opting for eco-friendly alternatives like reusable fabric bags or metal straws. Additionally, consumers should ensure that their clothing and furniture are made from natural fibres, as artificial fabrics can contribute to the shedding of microplastics.

While we can help on an individual level, it is ultimately the responsibility of the UK government to impose sanctions that restrict how companies can use microplastic-producing processes and materials in their operations.

One way to do this is for the UK to align with the EU’s proposed policy to ban all contributors to microplastic pollution that are used intentionally. In addition to this, the UK’s water companies must monitor the content of our country’s water more closely, implementing methods for tracking and precenting microplastic pollution. One way this can be done is through the treating of sewage, another is by mandating that manufacturers install microplastic filters in all new washing machines and take steps to retrofit them into existing ones.

The prevalence of microplastic pollution is concerning, and it is important for us to take a proactive role in reducing our exposure as much as possible. By being aware and taking action, we have a better chance of slowing microplastic pollution and encouraging brands to make the changes necessary to tackle the problem at its source.

Jacob Larkin is the marketing coordinator at Lanes Group, the UK’s largest privately owned specialist drainage and wastewater company which places a focus on promoting better drainage habits to help protect our sewers and seas. Lanes Group’s annual Unblocktober campaign aims to spread awareness about what you should and should not put down your drain, including contributors to microplastic pollution.

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