Microplastics – Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

The need for Plastic Free July extends beyond the plastic pollution that we can see with the naked eye.

Plastics are relatively new to the world, having only existed for a little over one hundred years. As is the case with so many chemicals in use today, plastics have been used widely since their conception, proliferating in our environment prior to our having a complete understanding of their effects. For this reason, we are more or less living in an uncontrolled experiment on the effects of plastic chemistries.


Unfortunately, the consequence is that we live with these chemicals until there’s significant proof of harm before legislators take action. Even though authoritative organizations like the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) have determined that plastic exposure in humans is associated with harm such as inflammation, genotoxicity, oxidative stress, apoptosis, and necrosis, legislation is painfully slow to catch up.

One of the greatest issues related to the plastic pollution problem today, is the ubiquity of microplastics in our environment. Microplastics are “tiny plastic particles that result from…the breakdown of larger plastics.” Plastics are problematic because they are not biodegradable, and microplastics are even more problematic because their infinitesimal size allows them to be anywhere and everywhere in our environment—from our freshwater and oceans to our drinking water and poop. Due to their tiny size and prevalence, once they are released into the environment, they are able to spread far and wide and it is incredibly difficult to remove them.

As the problem of microplastics grows, concerns are mounting due to the largely unknown effects of these pollutants on the health of humans, animals, and the environment. What we do know should certainly cause us to call for more research to be done.

For starters, we know that micro and nano plastics are problematic for humans and other forms of life both aquatic and terrestrial. There have been studies analyzing how micro and nano plastics impact the health of marine life. The synopsis of one International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) study revealed that plastic particles were indeed affecting biological functions in fish, such as their behavior and neurological functions, as well as their metabolism, intestinal permeability, and intestinal microbiome diversity.

This does not necessarily mean that humans are impacted in exactly the same way, but it does suggest that plastics likely are impacting humans. Learning of the impacts on aquatic life leads to questions of how the microplastics we are ingesting and absorbing are impacting our physiological functions and what the threshold of harm is. It also calls into question whether or not microplastics will accumulate in the body or if they are eliminated through the body’s detoxification mechanisms, like sweat and stool. There has been research suggesting that most plastic from food sources will pass through the gut and get excreted, but questions still remain on the full details of elimination. There are also indications that some plastics may linger in the body — recent research found plastic particulates in the lungs of patients undergoing surgery. To many people, the idea of synthetic particulates circulating throughout the body and blood is understandably unappealing, regardless of the likelihood of eventual elimination.

So how can we help combat this problem? Unfortunately, there’s no way for any of us to completely avoid plastics but we can all take responsibility in reduction, a good starting point when it comes to anything that is potentially harmful.

  • Stop use of single-use plastics and begin to re-think all of your plastic usage.
  • Paper cups, chewing gum, and…sea salt? Learn about hidden sources of plastics in your daily life in order to reduce your plastics use, to the best of your abilities.
  • Support efforts to further research the impacts of plastic pollution and microplastics.
  • Share about the harmful effects of plastics with the people in your life and encourage them to take action as well.
  • Finally, encourage your elected officials to take the problem of plastic pollution seriously, to advocate for more research to be done on plastics, and for legislative action to protect humans and the environment.

More on plastics:
Toxic Chemicals in Plastics
Quit Single-Use Plastics and Go for a Plastic Free July
6 Tips from MADE SAFE for Plastic-Free Living

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