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How Microplastics Impact Human Health

Start the year with a focus on personal and ocean health

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© Naja Bertolt Jensen

This blog was co-written by Hannah De Frond, Hannah works with the Ocean Conservancy and the University of Toronto Trash Team to coordinate the International Trash Trap Network, with the aim to expand the use of trash trapping technologies, and to document the collective impact of installing trash traps around the world. Hannah holds an MSc in Marine Environmental Management from the University of York, UK and previously worked as a researcher at the University of Toronto developing methods for microplastics research.

Each year in January, many of us jot down resolutions with a renewed focus on our personal health. While your resolutions may not include any reference to microplastics, the impact of these tiny particles on human health is a growing field of study. Microplastics can enter our bodies through the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. There is scientific evidence that these small particles can circulate throughout the body and enter our tissues.

Research on the impact of microplastics in our bodies is still in its early stages, but a recent study offers some insight. The study reviewed 17 existing scientific papers that tested the impacts of microplastics on human cells in a laboratory setting. Using this data, the authors were able to better understand how microplastics affected the health of the cells. For instance, the shape of different microplastics influences their impact on cells. The authors found irregularly shaped microplastic particles lead to increased cell death. Longer exposure times and higher amounts of microplastics also cause more damage to our cells.

Overall, microplastics were found to pose a risk to human cells. This is deeply concerning since humans are already known to consume microplastics through drinking water, seafood and salt. At current exposure levels, humans may already be experiencing toxic effects from microplastics. This could include allergic responses, cell damage and cell death.

There is increasing evidence of widespread microplastic contamination in what we eat and drink.

However, many key foods remain untested. This year, scientists at Ocean Conservancy are leading research to learn more about microplastics in the foods we commonly eat. Results of this work will be paired with public survey data to determine how many microplastics an adult living in the United States might be exposed to on a yearly basis. This information is critical to understanding the magnitude of risk microplastics may pose to human health.

This research is a clear reminder that what we do to, or put into, our environment matters—not only for the sake of the planet, but also for our own health. Fortunately, we can work together to reduce this problem before it gets worse.

This year, let’s all commit to reducing our plastic footprint:

  • Catch the microplastics generated by your clothes before they escape into the environment. Add a microfiber trap to your washing machine or switch to a shorter, cooler wash cycle. These changes can reduce the release of microfibers by 87% and 30%, respectively!
  • Take the Trash Free Seas® Challenge to reduce plastic waste at home. Commit to skipping the straw, reducing waste from takeout products and avoiding other single-use plastics.

Congress has already recognized the importance of acting on microplastics by banning plastic microbeads in personal care products starting in 2017. However, as the research shows, we need to do much more. Act now to ensure that the U.S. addresses the impacts of microplastics on human health and our ocean. Tell Congress to support legislation that prevents the release of harmful microplastics into our environment.

While more research on this problem will be critical, we can’t afford to wait to take action. Our health and the health of our ocean depends on it.

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