The ubiquitous, frivolous, and irresponsible abuse of plastics in our culture of throw-away consumerism has led to a significant environmental burden of growing concern. We have all probably heard about the huge floating continents of mostly plastic trash in that are clogging our oceans but we are just starting to learn about how microscopic particles of plastic have found their way into our food. These small particles of plastic, or microplastics, are difficult to track and quantify but recent studies have shown they are increasingly present in our food supply. Table salt, seafood, and both tap and bottled water have been found to have higher than acceptable levels of plastic in recent studies. In fact, a study published in 2019 estimated that the annual consumption of microplastics ranges between 39000 and 52000 particles depending on sex and age. The full health effects of these particles are unknown; however, many of the chemicals that compose plastic are classified as xenoestrogens and ingestion of plastic as microparticles may play significant roles in promoting sex organ and other cancers, contributing to developmental and behavioral abnormalities, as well as interfering in both male and female fertility. Due to their very small particle size, there is also concern these particles could contribute to urinary and gastrointestinal disease through becoming trapped and accumulating within these tissues.
These particles have become so pervasive in our environment that it is nearly impossible to avoid them entirely. Humans have produced more than 8 billion tons of plastic, mostly since the 1950s, and less than 10 percent of it has been recycled. Plastic microparticles are even in the air we breathe.
However, the following steps are recommended to limit your exposure and risk:
- Maximize your intake of fresh foods. Processed foods, which are packaged in plastic and often processed using tools and machines made from plastic, have higher levels of contamination. Canned food, including beverage cans (soda, beer), are lined with plastic and contain bisphenols, a potent endocrine disruptor.
- Drink filtered tap water. Bottled water is only filtered prior to going into a plastic container and a significant amount of plastic can contaminate the product before it reaches your mouth. In fact, just the simple act of screwing on or off the cap from a plastic water bottle creates a significant amount of plastic particles from the friction of the plastic surfaces rubbing against each other. In situations where bottled water is your only option, pour the water into a glass or at least avoid taking the screw-cap on and off. Softer plastics such as those used in squeeze bottles are known to create higher levels of contamination and should be avoided as much as possible. Glass and stainless steel water bottles are recommended instead of plastic.
- Avoid reheating foods in plastic containers. Heat vastly increases the rate at which plastic contamination occurs. Avoid take-out food that comes in plastic or styrofoam to-go containers. If you are going to a restaurant that you know serves large portions and is likely to result in a doggie bag, consider bringing your own glass container for the leftovers. The American Academy of Pediatrics even recommends not putting plastic into your dishwasher because this causes contamination of waste water and disperses plastic particles on all your clean dishes. It may be wisest just to recycle all of your plastic containers and replace them with glass (wash the lids by hand). You’ll certainly want to recycle any container or bottle with the recycling codes “3,” “6”, and “7” as these indicate the presence of dangerous chemicals such as phthalates, styrene, and bisphenols.
- Minimize household dust. Even if you aren’t allergic to dust mites, household dust has been found to contain dangerous chemicals such as phthalates, PFAS, and flame retardants. Regular vacuuming and cleaning as well as the use of air filters and purifiers can reduce your exposure to plastic particles and other contaminants in the air.
- Limit seafood intake to twice per week and try to choose species with low levels of contamination. This guide can from our friends at the Environmental Working Group can help you select the best varieties. https://www.ewg.org/research/
- Avoid plastic tea bags and straws.A recent study found that steeping a single plastic teabag releases billions of nanoplastics that result in a concentration of plastic in the resulting tea that is several orders of magnitude higher than found in any other food to date. The level is so high that even short term exposure in invertebrates caused dose-dependent behavioral and developmental effects. Single use plastic straws also result in high levels of ingested microplastics and contribute to plastic waste. Chewing on plastic straws or other plastic objects increases the exposure by several orders of magnitude.
By following these simple tips you can help reduce the risk posed by microplastics to yourself and your family. You’ll also be helping the environment by producing less plastic waste!