Plastic is all around us…and inside of us. Here’s what you need to know—and what you can do to protect your health.
You may have recently heard about microplastics and nanoplastics in the news, on social media, in your school or workplace, or in everyday conversation. “Microplastics” have even been deemed a “2023 Buzzword” by National Public Radio.
“Microplastics” and “nanoplastics” are words used to describe tiny plastic particles about the diameter of a standard pencil’s eraser and smaller. They exist all around us on Earth, and inside of our bodies, and shed off of things that are made from plastic.
Scientists have known for decades that plastic is a material that never breaks down or benignly biodegrades. But it’s only more recently that experts have been able to identify what happens instead: All plastic items break up into ever-smaller particles that remain plastic. Plastic particles travel through indoor and outdoor air; fresh waters, oceans, and other aquatic ecosystems; soils; plants; weather systems and atmosphere; and in the bodies of animals—including, as we now know, humans.
Should we be concerned? In short, yes. A large and growing body of evidence shows us how microplastics and nanoplastics are hazardous to people and other living beings, and the Earth, too. In fact, the Earth is so saturated with plastic particles that some people have said we are living during a new geological era: The Plasticene.
While we unfortunately cannot always avoid plastic particles, there’s much you can do to minimize your exposure. Read on to learn more about how you can take action today to protect your health from the dangers of microplastics and nanoplastics:
Microplastics and Nanoplastics are Harmful
Research showing the full extent of harm caused by microplastics and nanoplastics is now ramping up fast. While there’s a lot we do not yet know—such as the long-term effects of exposure to plastic particles on humans and the Earth—what we do know is concerning:
Plastic particles are in our bodies and environment
Microplastics and nanoplastics are small enough to enter the human body. They get into our bodies through our skin, when we eat and drink, and when we breathe. Plastic particles are widespread in modern human diets and our drinking water sources (tap and bottled); beverages (including soda and beer); fish, livestock, and game; produce and other edible plants; spices and salt; and processed and packaged foods.
Over the past several years, scientists have detected the presence of tiny plastic particles in people’s hearts, bloodstreams, veins, lungs, placentas, feces, and breast milk, with more worrying research now on the way. Human body cells exposed to microplastic particles in the laboratory experience cell damage and death. Observations of wild animals in nature show us that interactions with microplastics and nanoplastics can be deadly.
Plastic particles are known to both absorb toxic chemicals that pollute our planet and leach them into living organisms (including humans) and into Earth’s ecosystems. The smallest nanoplastic particles appear to have the ability to cross the blood–brain barrier in animals that ingest them, including fish. Plastic particles are easily colonized by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microscopic organisms that can cause disease.
Plastic particles are hazardous to our health
Ninety-nine percent of all plastics are made from petrochemicals derived from fossil fuels—gas, oil, and coal. Plastic’s fossil fuel ingredients are mixed with any combination of more than 10,000 chemicals that give plastics certain useful characteristics, such as flexibility, water-resistance, and nonstick qualities.
But this usefulness comes at a steep cost: More than 2,400 of these chemicals have been identified in the European Union as “toxic,” “persistent,” and/or “bioaccumulating” (dangerously building up in our bodies), with many more marked as likely hazardous. Many of the problematic chemicals in plastics are also made from fossil fuels.
Many plastic chemicals are known to cause and/or contribute to a wide range of health problems, including a person’s risk of hormone-related health issues, such as infertility and auto-immune diseases, cancers, and DNA damage. Microplastics and nanoplastics act as carriers for the chemicals that industries manufacture into plastics.
Take These Steps to Protect Your Health
Many experts now advise taking steps to avoid exposure to microplastics and nanoplastics, and plastics generally, to best protect our health. Children, as well as people who are trying to reproduce, appear particularly vulnerable to the hormone-disrupting and other toxic properties of plastics. People who work directly with plastics also appear more prone to the health threats of plastics and plastic particles.
Modern people may spend 90% (or more) of their time indoors—at home, school, in the workplace, and in public places. This is especially true as people continue to adapt to life amid a global pandemic. That’s a lot of time in environments that we can potentially control. Outdoors, we usually have less control over what pollutants we encounter.
Follow these steps to eliminate plastics—and microplastic and nanoplastic particles—from your indoor environments:
1. Take stock of plastics in your kitchen
Research suggests that most processed and packaged foods and beverages contain microplastic particles—in surprising amounts. Researchers have estimated modern people could be ingesting up to a credit card’s weight in plastic every week.
Eating unpackaged foods, such as loose fruits and vegetables, as well as foods packaged in untreated paper or reusable materials such as stainless steel, glass, and ceramic, can minimize your exposure to additional plastic particles in your diet. Don’t ever warm food in plastic containers in the microwave—use microwave-safe ceramic or glass instead.
Avoid consuming beverages bottled in plastic, including bottled water, to reduce your exposure to microplastic particles. Research shows tap water usually has lower levels of microplastics. Use a filter capable of removing microplastics and other contaminants to ensure the water you drink is safe and clean.
Shop for food locally if you can, at farmers markets (find markets in the U.S. here) and grocery stores that offer reuse options where you bring your own containers to refill. You can also grow your own food in your garden, or in containers on your windowsill or rooftop; or in a community garden near you. Or purchase fresh, local food from a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation in your neighborhood (search for CSAs in the U.S. here). If you chew gum, find gum made from natural ingredients—not plastic! And when you shop, use reusable bags, ideally made from cotton or other natural, non-plastic materials like hemp or bamboo. You can make your own bags for free out of old t-shirts made from these same materials.
When eating out, choose eateries offering plastic-free and reusable packaging and dining options. We’ve partnered with Yelp! to create search attributes to help you decide. Prepare your foods from unprocessed ingredients, and store or carry meals and in reusable, non-plastic containers. Eat off of, and drink out of, reusable glass, metal, and ceramic plates, bowls, cups, mugs; use metal or wood flatware, and glass or metal straws. Avoid plastic baby bottles.
Remove plastics from your kitchen and instead try to find utensils, appliances, and other supplies that minimize or eliminate plastic contact with food. Ditch toxic plastic-coated teflon pots and pans and stock up on stainless steel, uncoated ceramic, and cast iron. Many plastic-free kitchen solutions are low-cost, if not free: for example, instead of purchasing glass containers to store your leftovers or to take to a reuse shop, save glass containers you purchase along with your peanut butter, pickles, and other jarred foods for this purpose.
2. Beware of the plastics you might be wearing
Plastic fibers make up much modern clothing and apparel today. These manmade materials are major shedders of microplastic and nanoplastic “microfibers.” Avoid buying clothes made of plastic fibers like spandex, polyester, nylon, acrylic, and polyamide. Instead, opt for natural fibers such as 100% organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, wool, and other animal fibers.
Be aware that cheaply made, mass-produced seasonal “fast-fashion” apparel, even if made from nonplastic fibers, often has outsized negative impacts on people and the environment. Do your homework on brands before you buy to understand how their employees are treated, and how they value (or not) people and the planet.
Overall we need to take better care of our clothing, buying less and taking care of it better. Wash your clothes only when they are truly dirty, use cold water, wash in full loads, and opt for shorter washing cycles to reduce wear and tear. Learning to sew, knit, and repair your clothes can extend their useful life and reduce the need to buy “new” clothes. Buying secondhand or exchanging clothing in swaps can extend the life of garments that otherwise may be destined for a landfill.
If you do have plastic fabrics in your home, consider installing a filter on your washing machine that’s designed to catch plastic fibers. In France, by 2025, these filters will be obligatory on all new washing machines. These filters are an imperfect solution, since microfibers still need to be removed periodically and sent somewhere for disposal—most often a landfill. However, washing machine filters can minimize your exposure and prevent microfibers from immediate discharge into your wastewater system.
3. Choose plastic-free furnishings
Homes, offices, schools, and other buildings we occupy are often built with plastic materials and filled with plastic furnishings. When possible, avoid plastic materials and furniture for use in your home. Carpeting, manmade flooring, ceiling tiles, paints and finishes, couches, upholstered chairs, and other common household items contribute to indoor plastic pollution.
Besides circulating in the air, plastic particles often settle in the dust in indoor environments. Children and pets, being low to the ground where particles gather, are especially vulnerable to microplastics and nanoplastic exposure indoors.
Children and pets alike should not be given plastic toys with which to play. For human babies and kids, unpainted, untreated wooden toys are one of many safe options. Learn more about keeping your child safe from plastics with our Healthy Baby Guide. For keeping pets content, opt for natural ropes, homemade biscuits, raw fruits and vegetables, and real animal bones or horns (appropriately sized to your pet, of course), and organic catnip. Learn more about keeping your nonhuman friends safe in our upcoming webinar, “Plastic-Free Pet Care.”
Your lifestyle choices also impact plastic exposure in your indoor environments. Frequent vacuuming can reduce microplastics and nanoplastics. Be sure to open your windows while vacuuming to minimize your exposure to plastic particles kicked up during the process. Indoor HEPA filters can remove plastic particles from the air to minimize your risk of breathing them in.
Take Action to End Plastic Pollution
While you take steps to minimize your exposure to plastics in your everyday life, you can make an even bigger impact by supporting systemic solutions to plastic pollution. Remember, we need to turn off the tap on global plastics production in order to stop this urgent crisis. Plastic particles are only one of many sources of serious pollution caused by plastics. And the growing threat of microplastics and nanoplastics will only multiply unless plastic production is stopped.
Together we can build a more just, equitable world free of plastic pollution! Learn more about the facts and solutions, and take action: sign petitions on important plastics issues, and pledge to cut your own plastic use.