By: Emily Newton
Many have heard about the plastic island floating in the Pacific Ocean. Documentaries are rife with showing the hand sanitizer beads and pen cap remnants hanging out birds’ bellies. People know how microplastics harm environments and biodiversity. Yet, studying microplastics and human health is relatively recent.
The damage to the planet and the health of living things is apparent — so why did it take humanity so long to start analyzing the damage to the body? Research and development worldwide aim to unravel precisely how much microplastics have changed human health at this point in history and how to mitigate those results in the future.
Known Effects of Microplastics on the Human Body
Microplastics come from everywhere, including clothing scraps, office supplies, vehicle parts and cosmetics. So, it’s apparent how microplastics rapidly poisoned the world and seeped into every facet of human life. They appear in water, food and sometimes even the air.
However, people know little about the effect it has on human health. They can assume ingesting microplastics in large, unknown quantities would be toxic, mainly because plastic is so porous, melding with other potentially harmful chemicals and substances. Regardless, the evidence is minimal yet growing.
Because of what plastic contains — and the substances plastic holds — scientists starting to research the human health effects of microplastics had these concerns:
- Reproductive issues alongside hormone irregularities
- Compromised immune systems
- Organ damage from microtears
- Stunted development
The presence of plastic in the body is concerning enough because it could cause these potential side effects. It’s particularly notable in children, as companies make countless toys and tools like baby bottles from plastics and synthetics. Concentrated amounts of microplastics could cause all of the listed health side effects. It could also inhibit the growth of necessary neurodevelopmental centers and operational systems of the body, like the endocrine system.
However, microplastics could carry other harmful illnesses because microorganisms could make homes and reproduce in plastics as they break down. Therefore, it isn’t only the microplastics themselves people have to analyze — it’s what burrows in them to make a home in other humans.
Current Studies on Microplastics and Human Health
California initiated the first wide-scale test on drinking water from influential water providers in the area. It’s the first testing group of its kind, and the progress will set the tone for future regulations in the water treatment industry. It will guide regions — specifically in the United States — on who to reach out to for funding and how to delegate responsibilities for performing field tests. Plus, businesses will need to communicate with consumers about the microplastics in their drinking water, providing evidence that it’s safe for consumption.
The tests will analyze different water origins and the density and type of microplastics found in the water. Further testing will investigate how much it affects human health, but current research will only inform regulations for water treatment organizations at this point.
Other universities are taking a different approach and inventing new ways to detect microplastics in the bloodstream to see how many affect bodily fluids and tissues. The University of Amsterdam performed a study, finding 75% of their test subjects had plastic in their blood. As with many tests in this space, many have executed the discovery portion of the research but still need to uncover proof of adverse health side effects.
Endeavours like this expand on the previous studies of rats, mice and fish. Not only were microplastics found in their hearts and brains, but the health effects were also more prominent in their smaller bodies, signalling damage and inflammation, among other health concerns.
Other creative research endeavours include analyzing how AI could improve the 3D printing process to produce less microplastic waste as a byproduct of their creations. Analyses like this reflect on the advancements Industry 4.0 brought to humanity. However, waste production is a side effect of speed and efficiency to meet demand.
Actionable Steps for Preventing Future Adverse Effects
Taking action on microplastic consumption comes in a few categories individuals can influence. First, corporations making plastic products could analyze their items, ensuring their durability and life span to prevent plastic leaching. Otherwise, companies may need to look to other packaging or making materials that aren’t plastic.
On a consumer level, people can seek products packaged in other materials like aluminum or steel. Though this isn’t always possible, consumers could perform more research into the brands they’re supporting, reading more into their sustainability initiatives and material sourcing practices. Additionally, they can practice more conscientious waste disposal practices, which translates to a corporate level.
Most microplastic consumption happens through trophic transfer — or animals like fish consuming broken-down plastic objects. Then, people eat those fish with plastic in their systems. If humans and businesses didn’t practice poor waste disposal and stopped littering, the amount of microplastics animals consume would decrease. Increasing focus on proper waste disposal can bolster the health of people and any animals they consume.
Organizations can also innovate wastewater treatment. As California is already analyzing microplastics in drinking water, other regions can follow suit. The water treatment industry needs developments for efficient, cost-effective microplastic identification in water treatment. Currently, time-consuming, expensive and labour-intensive methods make the process unappealing for major corporations.
Finally, governments can ban specific plastic types in products that would otherwise be unnecessary, such as the microbead ban in England in 2017. Though some of these laws could be more comprehensive, they set precedents for future development and change how companies operate as they anticipate more plastic-use regulations.
Microplastics Need More Dedicated Attention
Nobody wants countless particles of plastic floating in their bloodstream, yet health sciences haven’t prioritized it since plastic’s revolution. As microplastics and human health garner more media attention, the focus sharpens. Eventually, humans will unfurl if these tiny plastics cause irreparable damage — but not if they can change their habits to prevent further contamination. The more people dedicate time and attention, the more likely they will overcome this poisoning trend.