Plastic. We live in a world where plastic, in its varied forms, surrounds most of us on a daily basis. It’s in the cars we drive, the gadgets we play with, the objects we fill our homes with… But what about the inside of our food? Wouldn’t that be one place you wouldn’t expect to find plastic? How about the very air that you are breathing right now? Well, according to a study published this year, Americans consume more than 70,000 particles of plastic each year.
Behind the study
The main author behind this study into how much plastic people consume is Kieran Cox, a Ph.D. candidate at the biology department at the University of Victoria. With help from other experts at his university and a few others, Cox did the study and published his results in the professional journal of Environmental Science & Technology. The analysis was published under the title, Human Consumption of Microplastics.
In the abstract for the study, Cox points out that microplastics (extremely small pieces of plastic debris found in the environment which result from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products as well as industrial waste) can be found throughout most ecosystems, but thus far few studies have looked into how much of these particles human beings are regularly exposed to. The study focuses on the average American person in terms of consumption of microplastics through diet, drinking water, and inhalation.
What Cox and the other researchers found, in a nutshell, is that the average American consumes between 74,000 and 121,000 microscopic pieces of plastic every year. Of these, roughly 40,000 to 50,000 are eaten as part of a normal diet, while the remaining 20,000 to 80,000 are taken in simply by breathing. However, the researchers point out that there is a great deal of variability in the findings, changing from individual to individual and population to population. For instance, a person who drinks mainly bottled water takes in nearly 100,000 more pieces of microplastic than does a person who drinks tap water.
These numbers were drawn from over 400 points of data from 26 studies that had been down in similar areas before. These studies looked into the amount of microplastic in the environment and such, but not specifically at how much plastic people consume, necessitating Cox’s study. The results of this study could prove to be a platform for other researchers to begin from, looking into the effects microplastic consumption could have upon our health.
The main sources for human consumption of microplastics were found to be bottled water, seafood, and air. Things like sugar and salt contained small amounts of microplastics and tap water and beer contained very little. Currently, there is no data on how much microplastic could be in grains, vegetables, beef, or poultry. Until studies are done on the microplastic amounts in these products, the results of studies such as Human Consumption of Microplastics are all liable to be underestimates of the true amount of plastic we consume.
The unknown effects
According to Kieran Cox, the results of so much microplastic on the human body is completely unknown. We know that the particles are getting into the environment, but even this knowledge is only a few years old. Scientists are only beginning to understand how microplastics affect and move through the environments they get into, and thus far no studies have been published on how microplastics affect the human body. Hopefully, this study will drive other researchers to find out just how all this plastic we are consuming affects our bodies.
Cox’s biggest piece of advice for anyone worried about how much microplastic they are consuming is simple: rely less on bottled water and more on tap water. There is little anyone can do about microplastic in the air and food (although avoiding seafood may also help a little), but the amount of microplastic particles in bottled water is enormous.