Every part of the planet has some level of microplastics in it. Microplastics are eroded pieces of plastic that come from the multitude of products in the world that aren’t properly disposed of. Now, scientists are weighing in on how we can reduce our exposure to microplastics.
Stephanie Wright, an environmental toxicologist at Imperial College, London has stated that currently, a lack of knowledge and data makes it difficult to learn about the long-term impact of microplastics. “I would say reducing particle exposure in general (including microplastic) is likely to be beneficial. But avoiding the stuff is a tall order, considering it’s in the air, drinking water, dust and food.”
Wright explained that foods and drinks in plastic packaging are now understood to have some of the highest exposures to microplastics. The shedding of plastic occurs when this packaging is exposed to heat.
“Hot water in plastic-lined cups and takeaway containers also releases micro- and nanoparticles, in some cases trillions per liter, although whether these are true plastic particles is unknown,” Wright told The Guardian.
To reduce exposure to microplastics, Wright stated that one should not heat anything in plastic or consume hot liquid that has come into contact with plastic. She stated that this includes microwaving food in Tupperware or any ready-to-heat products and “food-grade nylon used for food packaging, as liners for baking pans in restaurants and commercial kitchens and in slow cookers in household kitchens.”
“Some bottled waters – including glass bottles – contain thousands of microplastic particles per liter.”
Mark Taylor, a chief environmental scientist at the Environmental Protection Authority, stated to The Guardian that at home water filters are usually made up of plastic that can degrade overtime as well.
“I think we can stress ourselves out over all of these things and put too much focus on it,” says Taylor.
“The reality is people are living longer than they’ve ever lived before. Some people in a [global] population of 8 billion, of course, will be affected and may well die as a result of microplastics exposure. The way forward is balancing the risk of microplastics versus practical actions and lifespan.”
Taylor emphasized that it’s impossible for us to avoid all of the things in the world that have plastic in them, so instead of getting overly stressed, it’s better to try to just minimize excessive and unnecessary plastic use.
“You can think about the furnishings and the clothes that you acquire, and buy more natural fabrics. Instead of having a polyester carpet, you could have a wool carpet. You can think about buying natural clothing – they do produce microfibres, but they’re not microplastics and they break down. If you’ve got kids, do you need to have plastic spoons and plates?”
“The carpets, the curtains, the sofa, most of those are probably not made from fully natural fabrics, and they degrade and their fibers accumulate. All that dust and fluff that balls up like tumbleweed under sofas, or twinkles in sunbeams after you plump a cushion, will contain plastic fibers. This is why the vacuum cleaner is about more than being house-proud,” he explained.
“It’s very clear, whether you’re dealing with microplastics or trace metals such as lead, zinc, cadmium and arsenic that migrate into a home, that regular vacuuming is really effective at reducing the load. If you don’t vacuum, the dust remobilizes and deposits in open water vessels, on your fruit, on people’s hands, on kitchen utensils,” Taylor stated.
Malcolm Hudson, an associate professor in environmental science at the University of Southampton, explained that as a society, we shouldn’t place too much worry on our exposure to microplastics. Instead, we need to place a focus on the larger issues contributing to climate change, for example, the planet producing more plastic.
“We’ve evolved to deal with inhalation and ingestion of impurities. That’s why we have complex respiratory systems and all sorts of trapping devices to stop particles going into our lungs. It’s why we have an immune system that’s set up to deal with small foreign bodies. It’s why we have a digestive system that doesn’t let larger impurities get into our system – they just pass through,” Hudson stated.
“But in another few decades, if the environment continues to get more contaminated, I think you have got potentially a harmful issue. There was a study from a few years ago that showed that people who work in textile factories in Bangladesh have been exposed to very high levels of airborne microplastic fibers and they do get respiratory disease.”
“If you swallow that microplastic, you’re swallowing a small dose of another harmful chemical as well. Polyaromatic hydrocarbons, plasticizers like phenol A that are used in things like furnishings and packaging – they can have hormone mimicking or carcinogenic properties. Heavy metals like copper, vanadium, mercury, lead. Cadmium contaminated sediments have already become associated with plastics,” Hudson explained.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.