Microplastics and Your Health

Microplastics is a word used to describe the vast amount of microscopic plastic debris that is now found throughout the environment and many of nature’s ecosystems. Plastics are synthetic polymers, which make up around 25% of the output of the global chemical industry, with around 4,000 different formulations in current manufacture, worth billions to the global economy. (1) Microplastics are classified as plastics which are less than 1 mm in size, with many being much smaller such as those in the invisible nano range. Some microplastics start out as small tiny microbeads used in cosmetics, paints and cleaning products and others are formed by the natural breakdown of larger plastic items (such as appliances, food packaging, toys and synthetic fabrics) via general wear and tear or by sunlight-induced photo-oxidation.

Many of us are aware of the problems with plastics in the ocean and its impact on marine life as this has been widely studied and reported on for over a decade. However, the impact of microplastics on human health has been receiving more attention the last few years due to research finding their presence in human placenta, stool, and even blood.

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Plastics are highly versatile and useful materials that are utilised in nearly every industry as they have wide applications and are relatively inexpensive to manufacture.  Unfortunately 50% of plastics made from the 300+ million tonnes produced every year are used in the production of single use packaging and as such they end up in landfill and the oceans.  Wherever we look, from beaches and coastlines in the tropics to polar ice caps and deep ocean waters, both macroplastics and microplastics have been found.  Research has shown the devastating impact this is having on marine life species who mistakenly eat plastics thinking they are food in addition to ingesting plastics second hand from prey in their food supply that also had plastic contamination. Some of the reported effects of plastic on marine and aquatic life include changes in growth and development, hormonal and fertility issues, inflammation and immune dysregulation. This contamination of the food chain lead to concerns about downstream effects of microplastics on humans consuming seafoods – and indeed research has shown this to be the case.

Interestingly the plastic waste issue is a two-fold problem.  Some plastics are very stable and take a very long time to breakdown causing one environmental hazard in landfill, while other plastics are weak and prone to fragmentation and the creation of microplastics – which is another serious environmental hazard. Nanoplastics are a highly problematic subcategory of microplastics as they are small enough to freely enter the cells of many species and disrupt function. Their tiny nano size means they also bypass wastewater treatment and thus can continue to wreak havoc on eco-systems downstream and enter human bodies.

Plastics and Human Health

While the marine plastics issue has broad awareness due to mainstream media coverage, many people are still unaware of the detrimental impact that microplastics are having on human health.  People are often aware of the need to reduce the use of plastics due to their slow breakdown and the problem of overloading landfill, but many do not realise the way plastic can leach into our food supply through food and drink packaging or storage and cause major health issues.  There are three key routes for microplastics and nanoplastics to enter the human body: via ingestion, skin contact and inhalation.

Ingestion of Plastics

Plastics enter the food chain in various ways:

  1. consuming animal foods already contaminated with a source of microplastics
  2. contamination of foods used during the production (such as in ingredients)
  3. leaching of plastics from packaging of foods and drinks.

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The following average levels of microplastic pollution has been reported in various food sources (2):

  • seafood = 1.48 particles/g
  • sugar = 0.44 particles/g
  • honey = 0.10 particles/g
  • salt = 0.11 particles/g
  • alcohol = 32.27 particles/L
  • bottled water = 94.37 particles/L
  • tap water = 4.23 particles/L

Many microplastics are lipophilic – meaning they have an affinity for substances that have a lipid (fat) component – and certain foods containing fats may be more at risk of leaching and contamination when exposed to plastic packaging.

Inhalation of Plastics

In addition to ingestion, we also have issues with outgassing (the release of volatile compounds into the air) and microplastic particle inhalation. This can be from soft plastics such as phthalates found in everyday items such as electronic devices, cords and cables, kid’s toys, car interiors, home furnishings as well as from paints, perfumes and other industrial polymers. Dust particles contaminated with tiny microplastics that have broken down from bigger plastics can also be a route of inhaled exposure. Lastly, synthetic fibres found in clothing, bedding materials and soft furnishings are an often overlooked source of exposure through inhalation of harmful microplastic particles.

Skin Exposure

Household cleaning and personal care products are another huge chemical and microplastic exposure source that most people are ignorant about. In many cases body care products contain micro and nanoplastics in the product as well as also further leaching microplastics from the containers they are packaged in. The skin is thought to provide an effective barrier against some microplastics, but inflamed or damaged skin can lead to uptake and many other synthetic chemicals (eg. fragrances) in skin care products can still readily enter the bloodstream via the skin. There is a need for ongoing research to further establish the uptake of tiny nano-plastics via the skin and other routes of exposure as there is still a paucity of research in this area, despite the widespread ubiquitous exposure.

 

So how do plastics wreak havoc on our health?

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Plastics can have multiple impacts on the health of humans and other species through various pathways, including the blood, digestive tract, hormonal and immune systems. Nanoplastics are probably the most damaging of the microplastics as they have the potential to permeate cellular membranes and easily get into cells where they can create dysfunction. Polystyrene nanoparticles have been shown to penetrate the lipid membrane of the cell, causing structural change and a disruption of cell function. (3)  Plastics can interact and consolidate with protein in our tissue as well as binding to other environmental chemicals, amplifying the problem they impose.

Many plastics share similar configurations to some of our hormones (particularly oestrogen) and can thus interact with hormone receptors in the body causing dysfunction.  The term endocrine (or hormone) disruptor was coined to describe this class of environmental toxins that can impact on our delicate hormonal system. BPA for example, has been found to lead to metabolic disturbances, insulin resistance, obesity, premature puberty, fertility issues and reproductive cancers, in particular uterine and ovarian in women.  In men, endocrine disrupting plastics and other chemicals have been shown to reduce testosterone levels, reduce the quality of sperm, and cause benign testicular tumours. (4)

Toxic impacts of microplastics have been shown in the blood itself  – including the breakdown of plasma and red blood cells, reduced immunity, provocation of inflammation, thrombosis and blood coagulation, as well as inflicting blood vessel damage. (5)

Numerous animal studies have found exposure to nano and microplastics leads to intestinal inflammation, alteration of gut lining permeability, disturbances of the microbiome as well as immune cell toxicity. (6) It is possible that microplastics enter through lymphatic tissue in the gut and are more readily absorbed if there is a poor gut function and leaky gut. Additionally, it is important to note that polystyrene is far more readily absorbed that certain plastics, posing a greater issue on health from this foam based material as it can bind or interact with proteins, fats, water and other natural occurring substances found in the digestive tract.

Inhalation of microplastics can cause damage to lung tissue and pulmonary inflammation, while lung cancer has been found in occupations with a higher exposure to plastics. Microplastics from synthetic fibres  have been found in atmospheric fallout in urban areas and this has been shown to be an increasing route of exposure for humans – showing up in many organ tissues.

Functional tests to check for residues of many environmental toxins including BPA and glyphosate are available for those who are concerned about their load.

So What Next?

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So we can easily see that the growing concern with microplastics is well founded. While the research into their impact on human body function and promotion of disease is still relatively limited, the early signs are very concerning. As such it is highly prudent to mitigate the impacts of these ubiquitous plastics by firstly trying to avoid exposure as much as possible. While this can all seem a bit overwhelming and possibly depressing when you realise the scale of the problem, it is important to stay positive. It is worth remembering that like nature itself, the human body is capable of evolving and dealing with many different environmental challenges. Adaptation and evolution is constantly happening and over time I am confident that the body (and nature) will find pathways to deal with the issue of microplastics. The rate of change can sometimes be too fast for those of us with different genetic challenges to adapt and as such health issues from microplastics and other industrial chemicals are inevitable for some of us.  Therefore, it is still wise to minimise our exposure where possible to microplastics and reduce plastic usage in general to ease the burden on delicate marine and other eco-systems as much as our own bodies.

Some things to help reduce overall load is avoid consuming foods that are packaged in plastic containers or wrappings and ensuring storage of leftover food is only in glass or stainless steel containers. Avoid single use plastic items and plastic shopping bags and invest in some lightweight utensils and keep cups for takeaway foods as well as utilise cloth reusable bags for produce bags and carrying shopping. It is great to see many eco-friendly packaging replacements now being more widely used – from brown paper wrapping to cornstarch foam and compostable bags.

Given plastic bottled water was found to have a major load of microplastic residues, this should be avoided as much as possible. Using glass and stainless steel water bottles is a popular way to avoid plastic water bottles – and offers both health and environmental benefits. Buying organic and spray free produce will also decrease your overall load of chemicals and reduce the burden of impact on your body. It is well known that the additive effect of being exposed to many different chemicals creates a potent cocktail effect which has not been adequately studied. Thus aiming to minimise exposure to man-made chemicals in general is a sensible strategy for trying to maintain optimal health.

Swapping to eco-friendly and natural skincare, cosmetics and personal care products that are preferably stored in glass is a wise choice.  Avoid synthetic household cleaning products that contain harsh chemicals and use simple natural agents such as bicarb soda, vinegar and essential oils.  Avoid buying plastic toys for children who have a higher potential load due to their tendency to put everything in their mouth and their immature detoxification pathways. Be mindful when renovating or buying new furniture and bedding – opting for low chemical and more natural fibres and eco-friendly paints. Lastly, consider your wardrobe and stick to natural fibres such as organic cotton, hemp and bamboo.

In addition to avoiding exposure, it can be wise to consider a regular detoxification routine. Helping the body get rid of plastics and other chemicals means we need to have healthy functioning organs of elimination. These include the the liver, kidneys, bowel, lymphatics and skin. While the understanding of how the body deals with micro and nanoplastics is still very limited, we can support the body by optimising these systems. From a naturopathic and holistic health perspective we can always support detoxification through healthy lifestyle habits. This includes ensuring a nutrient dense diet rich in antioxidants, quality protein, good fats and minerals.  In addition key supplements that can bind toxins and herbs that stimulate detox pathways are highly beneficial as well as exercising and using infared or other saunas to stimulate sweating and cellular detox.

Consider a consultation for a personalised plan to optimise your health and detoxification or check out my detox programme for more specific guidance.

 

For a more detailed look into human health and the impact of plastics I recommend checking out the following review papers

 

References

  1. Galloway T, Lewis C. Marine microplastics. Curr Biol. 2017 Jun 5;27(11):R445-R446.
  2. Cox KD, Covernton GA, Davies HL, Dower JF, Juanes F, Dudas SE. Human Consumption of Microplastics. Environ Sci Technol. 2019 Jun 18;53(12):7068-7074.
  3. Rossi G, Barnoud J, Monticelli L. Polystyrene Nanoparticles Perturb Lipid Membranes. J Phys Chem Lett. 2014 Jan 2;5(1):241-6.
  4. Czarnywojtek A, Jaz K, Ochmańska A, Zgorzalewicz-Stachowiak M, Czarnocka B, Sawicka-Gutaj N, Ziółkowska P, Krela-Kaźmierczak I, Gut P, Florek E, Ruchała M. The effect of endocrine disruptors on the reproductive system – current knowledge. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. 2021 Aug;25(15):4930-4940.
  5. Rajendran D, Chandrasekaran N. Journey of micronanoplastics with blood components. RSC Adv. 2023 Oct 27;13(45):31435-31459.
  6. Hirt N, Body-Malapel M. Immunotoxicity and intestinal effects of nano- and microplastics: a review of the literature. Part Fibre Toxicol. 2020 Nov 12;17(1):57.