April 19, 2022 – How concerned should we be about microplastics?
Recent headlines reporting new microplastics findings in the human body might have led to unsettling thoughts of itty-bitty pieces of plastic deep in your lungs or swimming down your bloodstream.
But medical specialists say we should be aware, not worried.
“Microplastics have been shown to be in blood before,” says Michael Levine, MD, a medical toxicologist and associate clinical professor at UCLA Health.
“There’s never been any harm clearly attributable to microplastics in the body.”
Given that plastic has been around for over a century, microplastics in the human body is hardly a new phenomenon.
“Is it possible in the future that something could be shown to be detrimental? Absolutely. But at this point in time, it has not been clearly demonstrated in any meaningful or well-designed studies to show that it’s dangerous to the body,” Levine says.
How Much Plastic Do We Consume?
Most people could be ingesting around 5 grams of plastic each week (the weight of a credit card), according to a study by World Wide Fund for Nature. And because plastic doesn’t decompose, some pieces just break down into bits that we can absorb or inhale.
With microplastics floating in the air, the lungs are the “first line of defense” when they enter the body, says Albert A. Rizzo, MD, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association.
“The good part is I don’t see a lot of reaction of that [lung] tissue causing inflammation or scarring at this point,” he says.
Better Machines, Better Detection
While plastic in our bodies may be nothing new, there is one thing that’s changed: technology.
As machines continue to become better at detecting and tracing foreign substances in our bodies, there will likely be even more studies showing things that “perhaps may not be expected to be there,” according to Levine.
This doesn’t mean there are no risks linked to having microplastics in the body, according to Len Horovitz, MD, an internist and pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital and Weill Cornell Hospital.
“And of course, with plastics, you worry about PCBs, which are [man-made] chemicals that may be carcinogenic,” he says.
Microplastics can also pose a greater risk to some more than others. People who work in construction, or have hobbies involving cutting or fitting plastics, should be particularly careful.
“You should wear a good N95 mask for the most filtration,” Horovitz says.
But most people should rest assured that this is an area being heavily investigated.
“I think we’re really at the very forefront of any research that’s going to give us information as to whether or not these are disease-causing at this point,” Rizzo says.
In fact, air pollution causes “more concern and disease than microplastics have been shown to do,” he says.
Unfortunately for our environment, plastic consumption has skyrocketed over the past few decades.
Less than 10% of the 7 billion tons of plastic produced around the world is recycled, according to the U.N. Environment Program.
The substance has made its way into our seafood, too. Plastic bits less than 5 millimeters in size were discovered in blue mussels from the waters of southern Australia, a recent study shows. And there are reportedly trillions of microplastics in the ocean.
How to Limit Plastic Use
If you want to help lower microplastics in the environment, vowing to never use plastic again may not be realistic right now. But there are still ways you can make an impact, like cutting down on single-use plastics (think: straws, cups, and plates) and avoiding facial cleansers with plastic microbeads.
To learn more ways to lower your plastic footprint, click here.