A Breath of Fresh…Plastic? Humans Inhale a Credit Card’s Worth of Microplastics Every Week

Humans inhale a credit card’s worth of microplastics every week, according to a growing body of data compiled by researchers. 

While scientists have known for several years that plastic particles pollute both indoor and outdoor air, more recent research has found actual pieces of plastic inside of human lungs. This growing body of research on micro- and nanoplastic pollution shows that inhalation is a major route of plastic pollution exposure for people and other animals. Although the full effects of the issue are still unknown, occupational research has already suggested that inhalation of plastics is harmful.

Microplastics and Nanoplastics Are Everywhere

Microplastics and even smaller nanoplastics are tiny particles of plastic that shed off of all plastic stuff—including everyday plastic items like plastic clothing, furniture, and food packaging—and have found their way into every ecosystem and element on the planet. It’s well known that microplastics and nanoplastics have a variety of negative health effects on our wildlife, insects, plants, waters, soils, and even the climate and key Earth systems. Plastics have both physical and chemical effects on living beings and ecosystems, and many of the more than 16,000 chemicals in plastics are known to be toxic, interfering with animals’ hormones, brains, and other body systems, contributing to cancers and other major illnesses.  

As plastic production continues, plastic particles are building up in our human bodies, too. In the last few years, scientists have found microplastics and nanoplastics in human brains, veins, blood, placentas, genitals, guts, and hearts, in addition to human lungs, with more worrisome research on the way. Experts estimate that in the year 2018 alone, health problems linked with harmful plastic chemicals cost the U.S. health care system $250 billion in increased costs. Human health issues linked to plastic particles and chemicals are serious and numerous, and include Parkinson’s disease, autoimmune issues, cancers, digestive problems, hormone (endocrine) problems, preterm births, and many more. 

Because plastic particles are everywhere, including in virtually all foods, water, and beverages, they commonly infiltrate our bodies when we breathe, eat, and drink. Some plastics and plastic chemicals can also be absorbed through our skin. In addition to breathing in a credit card’s worth of plastic per week, other research suggests the average person also ingests about a credit card’s worth of plastic per week. That’s roughly 2,000 microscopic plastic particles, or 5 grams of plastic, every week—that’s around 260 grams of microplastics every year, or equivalent to the weight of an apple!

The Health Hazards of Consuming Microplastics

The microplastics found in our lungs include polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and other synthetic compounds used in the production of plastics. These particles, which range in size from 30 to 1000 µm (about the width of a human hair), can easily enter the respiratory system and have a negative impact on health when inhaled.

Microplastics that are ingested can have a major effect on the brain, bloodstream, and respiratory system. As carriers of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), the particles may disrupt regular hormonal processes, resulting in immunotoxicity, oxidative stress, neurotoxicity, cytotoxicity, developmental defects, and decreased fertility.

Microplastics have the ability to build up in the lungs and may result in inflammation, chronic damage, asthma, and lung cancer. The likelihood of adverse health effects rises with particle size. Smaller particles have a higher absorption capacity for toxic chemicals, as being further broken apart, they have a greater overall surface area than larger particles. Microplastics can enter the bloodstream after exposure and travel to the brain, which can have a detrimental impact on neurological health and cognitive function.

The concentration of plastic particles in the air is usually greater indoors, where plastic building materials like paints and varnishes, flooring, pipes, furniture, and fixtures are constantly releasing microplastics and nanoplastics. These particles tend to build up in household dust. Yet, some outdoor areas, such as roadways—where vehicle tires release large quantities of plastic particles—are highly polluted by plastic particles. And air and weather systems can carry plastic particles far and wide, traveling thousands of miles and affecting the formation of clouds.

Take Action

While it’s worrisome to learn about plastic particles polluting the Earth and our bodies, it’s important to remember there are things you can do to reduce your exposure to plastic particles and chemicals indoors and outdoors:

  1. Install or make a home air filter.
  2. Use a water filtration system or pitcher filter.
  3. Avoid processed and packaged foods as much as possible.
  4. Wear natural fibers, such as undyed bamboo, organic and/or recycled cotton, hemp, jute, linen, and wool, instead of synthetic fabrics.
  5. Build and decorate your home with natural materials—like wood, stone, and metal—and use natural fibers for furniture coverings.
  6. Encourage schools to implement reusable, plastic-free materials; eliminate single-use plastic; and incorporate environmental education into students’ curriculums. Reducing the amount of microplastics present in learning environments can be achieved in part by installing filtered water fountains/bottle refill stations, and giving natural materials priority when building and furnishing spaces.
  7. Communities can raise awareness by putting waste reduction plans into action, eliminating single-use plastics in municipal buildings and events, encouraging sustainable practices, pushing for stronger regulations on plastics, and working with local businesses and policymakers to incentivize plastic-free reuse, refill, repair, share, and regenerate principles.

Until we end plastic pollution at the source with systemic changes, we will only see the occurrence of microplastics and nanoplastics grow in our daily lives. But there is hope.

By supporting policy change and refusing single-use plastics, we are implementing solutions.

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