Researchers are increasingly worried about microplastics - plastic particles smaller than 5 millimetres across - and if they can damage human health. Studies show they are widespread in our environment - in everyday products in homes and offices; in oceans, rivers, the soil and even in rain over cities.
Over time, people ingest or inhale more of these chemicals than they expel, a process that leads to bioaccumulation in bodies. These specks are small enough to enter our cells or tissues and their toxicity may cause diseases.
A recent analysis identified more than 10,000 unique chemicals used in plastics, many not properly regulated globally.
And research shows we might be ingesting anywhere from dozens to more than 100,000 microplastic particles each day depending on what we consume and the amounts.
Microplastics have now been found in fish, deep inside the lungs of surgical patients and in the blood of anonymous donors and breast milk.
While there have been no epidemiologic studies confirming a link between exposure to microplastics and impacts on health, researchers point out chemicals found in plastic have been linked to a range of health problems including cancer, heart disease, obesity and poor foetal development.
High levels of microplastics in our bodies may also cause cell damage. “... there is overwhelming consensus among all stakeholders that microplastics do not belong in the environment and measures should be taken to mitigate exposure,” says the World Health Organization.
How worried should we be about microplastics in our bodies? What is the current state of research and what are the challenges faced by experts in the field? And what solutions can we start to employ now to mitigate more extensive hazards both known and unknown?
The consumption of micro and nano plastics represents a health risk that could be ‘irreversible’, researchers say in a warning about the pollution. Humans take in five grams of plastic particles each week - about the weight of a credit card.
In Sri Lanka, researchers found that people are exposed to airborne microplastic particles which are between 1 and 28 times higher indoors compared to outdoor environments.
Plastics in livestock feed result in microplastics in the meat and dairy we consume every day. Scientists detected plastic particles in 18 of 25 milk samples tested in the Netherlands and in some seven out of eight beef samples.
Microplastics can transform other pollutants into a more harmful form. Microplastic-contaminated UV filters used in cosmetic products, for example, make chromium metal more toxic.