Microplastics, once thought to be most commonly found in seafood, have been found in the atmosphere exposing everyone on the planet to these particles whose effects scientists still know only little about.
According to Britannica.com, Microplastics are small pieces of plastic, less than 5 mm in length, that occur in the environment as a consequence of plastic pollution. According to the United Kingdom’s University of Plymouth, particles arise from the breakdown of larger items of plastic litter in the environment, such as plastic packaging, water bottles, tire abrasion, microbeads from exfoliants, and more. Microplastics exist in the air, water, and soil, as well as in various products.
The University of Plymouth estimates that there are now trillions of microplastic particles in the marine environment. Research has shown that up to 94,500 microbeads could be released into wastewater from exfoliant use and that 700,000 fibers could be released into wastewater from a single load of laundry. Plymouth also estimates that microplastics could take hundreds or even thousands of years to break down. Some of the greatest microplastic accumulations have been documented in all five of the ocean’s subtropical gyres, circular ocean currents, and thousands of miles from land.
“Our work has so clearly shown that microplastics are present in every sample of beach sand, whether it’s in Australia, Asia, Europe, or North or South America,” said Marine Biologist Professor Richard Thompson. “We’ve looked in the deep sea, in Arctic ice, in the gut of hundreds of fish from the English Channel, and we’ve found microplastic contamination everywhere.”
In addition to the ocean, microplastics have also become airborne. In another study by the University of Plymouth in Scotland, eating wild mussels contaminated with microplastics was compared to breathing air in a typical home. Plymouth concluded that people take in more plastic during dinner by inhaling or ingesting tiny, invisible plastic fibers floating in the air around them, clothes, carpets, and upholstery than by eating the mussels. Microplastics have become so widespread that particles were even found in the snow on Mount Everest.
A recent study by Biologist and Professor Dick Vethaak found plastics in the blood of 17 out of the 22 healthy blood donors. With many particles being smaller than one micrometer, it’s unclear if they were inhaled or ingested. In a separate study, microplastics were found in 11 of 13 lung samples. The particles identified in the lung study are made of plastics known to be toxic to humans and have caused lung irritation, dizziness, headaches, asthma, and cancer, according to Dr. Kari Nadeau, director of allergy and asthma research at Stanford University.
With exposure to microplastics being universal, more research is necessary to understand how these particles will affect our health and the overall ecosystem on Earth. The University of Plymouth acclaims that unless we change our ways there, within this century, there will be wide-scale and potentially irreversible effects on the natural environment. 367 million metric tons of plastics were manufactured in 2022. This is estimated to triple by 2050. Japanese scientists from Kyushu University estimate around 24.4 trillion microplastics in the world’s upper oceans, equivalent to roughly 30 billion half-liter water bottles. With people’s exposure to microplastics being so universal, more research is still needed to fully understand how these particles will affect our health and the overall ecosystem on Earth.
In laboratory tests, microplastics have been shown to cause damage to human cells, including both allergic reactions and cell death. To date, there are no large group epidemiologic studies documenting a connection between exposure to microplastics and impacts on health. Until said research is conducted, the full effects of microplastics on the body will remain unclear.