We’ve seen examples of what happens to wildlife when they encounter large bodies of plastic in their habitats, whether a fish swallows a bottle cap or a turtle mistakes a plastic bag for jellyfish. And when it comes to humans, we know to take our little cousin to the emergency room when they swallow a plastic toy to ward off a potential intestinal blockage or rupture, or, less commonly, chemical toxicity from plastic lined with flame-retardants or phthalates. But what about those plastics we can’t see or feel?
“We’re at the point where many governments around the world are saying, ‘We know that microplastics are harmful to biological life, but we’re not clear as to what the risks are in humans,” says Dr. Ross. The not knowing is what can be so unsettling.
As if microplastics weren’t anxiety-inducing enough to think about, you then have to consider the possibility of nanoplastics floating around. “They’re troublesome because it’s possible that they easily go across our gut lining and into circulation,” says Dr. Ross. “We’re just hypothesizing that if it’s circulating around, what’s it going to do in certain organs and the brain? At this point it becomes science fiction.” While the jury is still out on how microplastics affect human health, limiting exposure certainly can't hurt. Here, Dr. Ross gives tips on how to limit it as much as possible—for yourself and the planet.
Lifestyle tips for reducing microplastic exposure
The growing concern surrounding plastics in our food system stems from the exponential increase in plastic manufacturing on a global scale, according to Dr. Ross. Plastic manufacturing laws are not uniform across all countries, states, and industries, so it’s up to us to implement changes on a personal, immediate level. Here’s what you can do: Dr. Ross recommends avoiding fast-fashion (think the likes of Forever 21 and H&M) since a significant amount of plastic found in oceans comes from clothing.
Because each household produces an average of 500 million fibers per year that might enter the ocean, he says, wash with cold water and less soap. If you can, opt for a front-loading washing machine that requires less water per load, and wrings out more water than top-loading machines. Additionally, eliminate or limit your consumption of single-use plastic in the form of bags, straws, bottles, and packaging. Be sure to recycle the plastic you do use properly by consulting your municipality’s laws.
How to reduce microplastic exposure at mealtime
Anytime you consume a food or drink, you could be ingesting microplastics without knowing it. According to Dr. Ross, it's really tough to know what specific types of foods are more susceptible to plastic contamination. But he does call out two major ones scientists have seen first-hand: “First, plastics are already in the food like fish or shellfish if they had taken it in from the environment, and the second is bottled drinking water,” says Dr. Ross.
Plants or factors can have microplastic fibers in the air, which can end up in food and drinks during production. “In the factory or plant, dust from the air in the plant serves as a conduit landing in the water,” Dr. Ross says. This can happen in our own homes, too, which is why he suggests sweeping and vacuuming frequently, not just simply dusting surfaces.
Be aware, but don't obsess
While all these tips can help cut down on microplastic exposure, Dr. Ross reiterates that it's too early to tell how they affect human health. Until more scientific and medical studies are done, microplastics remain a huge question mark as far as physical and cognitive impacts are concerned.
He also says both our respiratory and gastrointestinal systems are designed to process foreign particles. “When inhaling air, we have a barrier inside the lungs, including microphages that gobble it up,” he says. “In general, humans have evolved to deal with things that are indigestible that we can’t break down.”
While it's absolutely important to think about the amount of plastics in our oceans, land, and bodies, obsessing isn't healthy either. However, it's important to keep in mind that there's no downside to reducing plastic use. Even if the jury is still out on the impact on human health, the impact on the planet is well-known. And that's reason enough to be mindful.
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