Microplastics are all around us in modern life. They have been found in the food we eat, the water we drink, the clothes we wear, the products we use on our skin, and in the air we breathe.
In 2018 researchers at the Medical University of Vienna examined samples of human stools provided from participants from three different continents. They discovered that polypropylene and polyethene were the most common particles present at sizes varying between 50-500 micrometres. It was the first time that conclusive evidence was found that microplastics can make their way into the human gut.
In September 2019 it was reported that microplastic particles were detected in plastic tea bags, with anything up to 11bn or more particles estimated to be present in just one bag.
They’ve been found in abundance in the waste water of gentle clothes washing cycles. It’s thought that the gentle jiggling of clothes can release more microplastic particles than a faster, more robust washing cycle.
How big is the problem?
Microplastics are very small particles, measuring in between 1-1000 micrometres wide, when one millimetre is 1000 micrometres wide. They are hard to detect because the majority of them are not visible to the naked human eye and can only been detected using specialised equipment.
What harm can they do to health?
The health concern surrounding the absorption of microplastics into the human body is focused on the chemicals that are used during the plastic manufacturing process, some of which are thought to have a toxic effect on human health.
How strong is the science?
Scientific research to date has focused on detecting microplastics inside the human body and animals including fish. As yet, very little is known about the actual harm to health they can cause.
The Viennese study highlighted that microplastics can make their way into the digestive system which could cause a number of problems including gastrointestinal diseases, and how we uptake nutrients from our food including iron. They could also be playing a role in healthy immune system functions and the natural detoxification processes the liver carries out.
In August 2019 the World Health Organisation reported that microplastics present in drinking water do not present a health risk at current levels. Dr Maria Neira, Director at WHO states,
“We urgently need to know more about the health impact of microplastics because they are everywhere – including in our drinking-water […..] based on the limited information we have, microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels. But we need to find out more. We also need to stop the rise in plastic pollution worldwide.”
It’s frustrating and deeply worrying that not enough hard scientific evidence is available yet about the health risks of microplastics to human health. What we do know is that they are present in our bodies, raising serious concerns about the impact on our health.