What do beer, oysters, table salt, air and tap water have in common? They’re all ways humans are ingesting microplastics, tiny bits of plastic waste ubiquitous in oceans, lakes and rivers and even soil and air.
Wildlife as diverse as whales, seabirds, fish and zooplankton are polluted by ingesting plastic debris. It’s naïve to assume that humans, sharing the same global environment and eating at the top of the food chain, are magically spared contamination from plastics.
Though no one has yet measured how much plastic pollution humans actually carry around, there’s plenty of evidence we’re taking the stuff in, by eating, drinking and just breathing.
Plastics for Dinner?
Discovery of sea life carcasses chock full of plastic waste sparked concern that sea creatures consumed by humans are imbibing plastics too. Research reveals that visible plastic debris is taken up by life forms throughout the ocean food web, from small plankton-eating fish to shellfish, turtles, dolphins and whales.
However, most marine plastics are invisible to the naked eye. Petroleum-based plastics resist biodegradation, but instead fragment into ever smaller pieces, eventually reaching millimeter and nanoscale dimensions dubbed microplastics. Microplastics can transfer up aquatic food chains, as demonstrated by transfer from the tiniest to larger zooplankton and from mussels to shore crabs.
That fish and bivalves sold at fish markets worldwide contain plastic debris is proof that plastics are making their way onto our dinner plates. But plastics are also showing up in less obvious places on the dinner table.
One study reported that 36 of 39 brands of table salt brands from 16 countries or regions, including the United States, contained microplastics.
In an analysis of tap water from five continents, over 80 percent of city samples contained plastic microfibers from synthetic textiles. The U.S. samples fared the worst: 94 percent contaminated.
All 12 sampled brands of beer produced in the Great Lakes region contained microplastics, averaging four particles per liter.
How much plastic might a person imbibe? One study estimated shellfish consumers could eat 11,000 microplastic particles annually. Another figured yearly consumption of 5,800 from beer, salt and tap water.
Plastics appear inert, but they’re not. The polymer’s chemical building blocks and the additives used to impart desired properties can be dangerous chemicals which migrate out into the surroundings. Plastics also pick up toxic chemicals from seawater. When fish consume plastics, transfer of pollutants to their tissues can occur.
That human feces contain microplastics is hard-to-deny evidence of human exposure. It’s alarming that degrading plastics eventually reach the microscopic dimensions of viruses which can penetrate the lung and gut and reach vital organs via the circulatory or lymphatic systems.
How Is Plastic Getting into Everything?
Less than a tenth of the nine billion tonnes of plastic ever produced worldwide has been recycled, most ending up in landfills or as litter where fragmentation ensues.
Water treatment plants weren’t designed to remove microplastics. Treated water and sewage sludge are awash in microfibers sloughed off from synthetic fabrics during laundering which consequently pollute oceans, lakes, streams and soils.
Air is contaminated by microplastic fibers sloughed off during normal abrasion of clothing, upholstery and carpeting, and we’re not just breathing them in. Research suggests that humans likely consume more microplastics from the dust that invisibly rains down on their meals than from the food itself.
The countless conveniences of “The Age of Plastics” are the product of human innovation. But, we’ve also unknowingly created a deadly monster: the microplastic contamination of the global environment and ourselves.
A problem this huge requires sweeping reforms in mankind’s relationship to plastics, and the European Union is taking the lead. Its parliament just voted a union-wide ban on common single-use plastics, like cutlery, straws and cotton swabs. The United States must follow suit and also pressure manufacturers to re-design plastics so they’re made from sustainable, non-toxic, biodegradable and easily recycled materials.
Sarah “Steve” Mosko is a licensed psychologist, sleep disorders specialist, and freelance environmental writer who grew up in San Diego but currently lives in Orange County.