People love plastic. We put it on and into everything, from food packaging to facial cleansing, and we also send it in the form of microplastics into the distant oceans and the dusty corners of our homes.
These tiny polymer particles penetrate almost everywhere, and probably wrapped around the globe before we even realized that they existed. And now we find her in our hut. (Probably they have been there for a while.) Researchers from the Medical University of Vienna and the Federal Environment Agency Austria are the first to find microplastic in human stool samples. They plan to present their results this week at the United European Gastroenterology Week.
While the news that your poop is likely to contain tiny pieces of plastic may seem alarming, scientists have suspected this for years. After all, microplastics have appeared everywhere we looked. They are in beer, crustaceans, tap water and even the air in your house. A study has even suggested that you can get a good deal of your microplastic exposure to airborne particles that fall on your food.
We quickly realize how ubiquitous microplastic is, but we still know little about it.
What exactly are microplastics?
The often mentioned figure you see is the technical definition of a microplastic: every piece smaller than five millimeters (that's 0.02 inches) in diameter. For reference, a skein of spaghetti is about two millimeters wide and a standard round aspirin pill is about 1
Again, we do not have much data on the average size of microplastic pieces in the world, but a lot. The parts we find in food and water are more nanometer-microscopic, in other words. However, some of the pieces are not like the pearls in some exfoliating face washes that have come under attack in recent years because they have penetrated millions of oceans directly into oceans, streams and lakes. And some of the fragments found in this latest study reached the five-millimeter mark, though participants probably had no idea that they were swallowing so much of it.
Where do all these particles come from?
Every time you wash synthetic fibers such as fleece or polyester, they can release microscopic plastic fibers that enter the water supply. If you drive your car, parts of the rubber will dissolve and wash away in the next rain. Microplastic even results from unintentional decomposition of the products we use every day, such as drinking straws and shopping bags and take-out containers. They come from the paint on boats and the nylon in fishing nets. Oh, people who flush their contact lenses to the bathroom (stop that!).
The point is that microplastic comes almost everywhere because we have plastic almost everywhere. But like all things, plastic collapses over time. Even tiny bits that jump away add up to 7.5 billion inhabitants.
How can I eat them?
Because microplastics end up in our water supply, they can end up in drinks like beer, and also we wash particles into the ocean they can end up in fish and crustaceans, which people then eat. But as already mentioned, some microplastic from the air settle on your plate. Researchers at Heriot Watt University found that the average British citizen could consume 10,000 particles a year only from household dust.
What are you doing to me?
We really have no idea at this point. A 2017 editorial in The Lancet Planetary Health summed it up well: "Contamination with microplastics seems to be more widespread than we may have known, and it is regularly absorbed by people worldwide." The most worrying is how Little is known about the impact of microplastic consumption on human health. "
We are just starting to figure out how much plastic could be in our bodies – this European study is the first to show that it builds in our claws – but we are still not sure what kind of problems it might pose. Fragments could damage internal organs or leach chemicals. And as the same editorial points out, it's going to be difficult to study the effects, because microplastics is so ubiquitous. We will look over differently burdened populations and try to relate them to health effects, which is not a very accurate way to study, but is likely to be the only way forward. We can not do a clinical study in which doctors deliberately dose patients with tiny plastic beads.
Caution is the key. Plastic fragments are probably not good for us – at best they are neutral. But it can not hurt to try to reduce our exposure.
How can I avoid microplastics?
Unfortunately, you probably can not completely eliminate microplastics from your diet. As I said, this stuff is literally in the air you breathe. The best you can do is to avoid some of the most obvious routes of exposure. Plastic bottles of water spill out fragments, as well as plastic containers and other food packaging. Reduce your use of all these can help you to minimize your plastic intake. Also, choose politicians who are committed to better environmental regulations. Bottleneck payment programs and retail plastic shopping bag fees have helped countries such as the UK and Germany increase their recycling rate to over 95 percent and reduce their disposable goods consumption by 80 percent. Measures like these could help solve the problem at the source.