Researchers have found microplastics — small fragments of common convenience items — in the human body for years, mainly in excrement and blood. Turns out, the highest concentration of microplastics in the body have been hiding somewhere much more disastrous.
According to research performed at Hull York Medical School in England and published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, the microplastics were found in the lungs of living people.
“We did not expect to find the highest number of particles in the lower regions of the lungs, or particles of the sizes we found,” said Dr. Laura Sadofsky, the lead author of the paper. Sadofsky went on to explain that the airways are smaller in the lower regions of the lungs. Theoretically with smaller airways, larger particles should be filtered out by the time they get there. And yet, here we are, with harmful microplastics settling in the lower regions of our lungs.
How did we get here? In a word: consumption.
There are up to 300 million metric tons of plastic produced across the world yearly. Eighty percent of the plastic produced ends up in landfills or polluting the oceans or other waterways or grasslands. The U.S. alone produces 25 percent of the world’s total waste.
How to avoid microplastics in everyday life
Microplastics are commonly found in bottles, packaging, clothing, and other manufacturing processes. The main microplastics found in this study were polyethylene, nylon, and resins. They can range from 10 nanometers — smaller than the human eye can see — to 5 millimeters in diameter, about the size of the eraser on the end of a pencil. Are humans just careless and eating the plastic packaging with their meals? Of course not — well, not purposefully, anyways.
We’re ingesting these microplastics when our food sits in packaging on shelves, is reheated in plastic packaging, or when our hot liquids are poured into single-use coffee cups. We can also ingest microplastics from single-use water bottles, or by buying “quick fashion” clothing, which is clothing produced cheaply that is made mostly of synthetic fibers.
The good news is that we have much more control over what we put in and on our bodies. While we may not be able to completely avoid microplastics (they’re in the water, after all), there are some things we can do to avoid unnecessary exposure to these harmful particles.
Swapping plastic single-use shopping bags for reusable bags at the grocery store, buying more whole foods and less processed/packaged foods, and picking up a reusable water bottle and coffee cup are some fantastic places to start.
“This is proof that we have plastics in our body — and we shouldn’t,” Dick Vethaak, an ecotoxicologist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, said.