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Micro & Nano-plastics: Exploring Its Impact On Your Health

Written by

Deborah Freudenmann BHSc

The discovery of plastic created a revolution in the modern world several decades back. Plastic use is growing every year, with recent figures showing plastic production worldwide surpassing 368 million tons in 2019. Plastics are involved in almost every aspect of your daily life including technology, medicine, cosmetics, domestic appliances, food storage products and so much more. However, all these conveniences come with a huge cost in terms of your health. Most of the used plastics are thrown away after short use and end up in landfill, oceans / other waterways.The understanding that plastics break down into microplastics and then to nano plastics has raised some concerns regarding their health impact or toxicity to humans. In this article we will dive into some of the potential impacts that micro and nano plastics have as they move through the body causing systemic exposure.

What are microplastics and nano-plastics?

First let’s start off with what plastics are made of. Plastics are made of natural materials that have undergone several chemical processes and physical reactions. These processes are rarely reversible, which means that plastics must go through “more” chemical processes in order to be “recycled” into new types of plastics.

Once disposed of, plastic waste is exposed to biological, chemical and environmental elements, and will break down into huge amounts of microplastics (measuring < 5 mm)
and nano-plastics (<0.1 μm).

A singular microplastic particle will break down into billions of nano-plastic particles which means that we will have a nano-plastic pollution across the globe… and arguably one that we will be facing for a very long time.

Primary and secondary

Micro and nano-plastics are generated from both primary and secondary sources.

Primary sources are those that deliberately created micro and nano-plastics for consumer uses, such as exfoliants, cleansers, cosmetics, as drug delivery particles in medicines.

Macro plastic products that disintegrate into smaller particles are the secondary source of micro and nano-plastics.

Research studies have revealed the presence of micro-plastic in the faeces of people, confirming the fact that microplastic can enter our body through various sources.

The compounds released from the breakdown of plastic are also detected in the heart, stomach, intestines, and kidneys. Tiny plastic particles have been detected even in the fetuses of mice.

Yee MS-L, Hii L-W, Looi CK, Lim W-M, Wong S-F, Kok Y-Y, Tan B-K, Wong C-Y, Leong C-O. Impact of Microplastics and Nanoplastics on Human Health. Nanomaterials. 2021; 11(2):496. https://doi.org/10.3390/nano11020496

Plastics in the food chain

As plastic waste increases, the presence of micro and nano-plastics in the food chain also increases. These plastic particles can enter into the human food chain in various ways: Animals consuming them in their natural environment, contamination during the food production process, and / or through leaching from plastic packaging of the food and drinks.

Some shocking facts

Tap water from 159 global sources were tested and 81% were found to contain microplastic particles measuring less than 5mm.

Tests were conducted on 259 individual bottles of water from 11 different brands and 27 different batches, and the results demonstrated that 93% contained microplastic particles.

Statistics show the following average levels of microplastic pollution in food:

  • 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
  • air = 9.80 particles/m3

 

From these figures, it is possible to extrapolate that the average human is consuming around 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles per year, with age and gender impacting the total amount.

If inhalation of plastic particles is included in the figures, then the amounts rise to between 74,000 and 121,000 particles per year. Further, an individual who only ingest bottled water is potentially consuming an extra 90,000 particles in comparison to people who only drink tap water, who will ingest only 4000 extra particles.

That’s a LOT of plastic consumption just through our food chain and water intake.

Uptake and bioaccumulation

There are 3 key routes for uptake: inhalation, ingestion and skin contact.

Yee MS-L, Hii L-W, Looi CK, Lim W-M, Wong S-F, Kok Y-Y, Tan B-K, Wong C-Y, Leong C-O. Impact of Microplastics and Nanoplastics on Human Health. Nanomaterials. 2021; 11(2):496. https://doi.org/10.3390/nano11020496

Potential toxic effects

Several invitro and vivo studies have shown that micro and nano-plastics were able to cause serious impacts on the human body, including physical stress and damage, apoptosis (cell death), necrosis, inflammation, oxidative stress and altered immune responses.

Research studies have linked plastic exposure to a high risk of health issues like infertility, chronic inflammatory conditions, cancer, and developmental problems.

The micro and nano-plastic particles are usually covered with other microbes and chemicals that can create an additional negative impact on our health. They also contain flame-retardants, stabilizers, and other additives, which can produce toxicity.

BPA (bisphenol A) is a common microplastic-related compound found in the samples of body tissues. BPA is a toxin that can hamper the vital functions of the body such as growth, development, and reproduction.

Xenoestrogens are also commonly found compounds in plastic as well as other products like hormone-injected meats, petrochemicals, fuels, and car exhausts. Xenoestrogens can mimic the structural components of estrogen, which is a female reproductive hormone. Xenoestrogens, hence, have the potential to act as estrogens and interfere with the activities of the reproductive system in women.

Exposure to Xenoestrogens can increase the risk of severe diseases by triggering inflammation and causing hormonal imbalances.

The consequences of plastic

We see the consequences of plastic use all around us with the increase of countless diseases and conditions.

The easy thing now would be to blame the industries as their contribution was the main problem. But who used it? You did, we did, and so did everyone else.

We all feed the issue by buying into it.

What can you do about it?

There isn’t much we can do about microplastics that are already in our air and water.
Though an air purifier or water filter may reduce the larger plastic particles, this wouldn’t remove the smaller nanoparticles.

However, there is a way to prevent this problem from getting worse in the future: produce and use less plastic. This is where we, as individuals can make a difference by reducing the amount of plastic we use.

This is particularly important with single-use, disposable plastic products and packaging.
There are many ways to reduce the amount of disposable plastic you use. You can cut down on packaged junk food, stop buying bottled water and stop using zip lock and freezer bags…just to list a few. Buy unpackaged local or organic fruit and vegetables, get a quality water filter, depending on your workplace you can also push for an HEPA air filter. Take a stand, and leave products with excessive plastic packaging on the shelf.

In addition, for every product made of single-use plastic, there is almost always a reusable alternative (cloth shopping bags, stainless steel or glass drinking bottles etc.)

Reducing the disposable plastics that we use have two benefits: it reduces the amount of waste plastic going into the environment, and also reduces the amount of plastic you’re exposed to on a daily basis.

 

This blog post is an insight into the findings of this study:

Yee MS-L, Hii L-W, Looi CK, Lim W-M, Wong S-F, Kok Y-Y, Tan B-K, Wong C-Y, Leong C-O. Impact of Microplastics and Nanoplastics on Human Health. Nanomaterials. 2021; 11(2):496. https://doi.org/10.3390/nano11020496

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