Emily Owen, Guest Author
Plastic has infiltrated everything. It’s everywhere. One recent study has shown that it can even be found in our blood. Specifically, microplastics are taking up residence in our bodies. Microplastics are exactly what they sound like, particles of broken-down plastic so small that they can’t be seen by the naked eye. Smaller than 5 millimeters! For perspective, an inch is 25.4 millimeters. You would need a microscope to see microplastics, which have also been found in the deepest depths of the Marianas trench and up on the peaks of Mt. Everest.
Plastic doesn’t ever biodegrade, it just gets smaller and smaller. Every single piece of plastic that has ever been created since the invention of plastic in 1907, still exists. That means the plastic fork you used that one time at a picnic three years ago is still out there. Now we know these polymers are ending up in our blood through the cups we drink out of, the food we eat, and the air we breathe. More surprisingly, trace amounts of plastic can be found in tattoo ink, lip gloss, and toothpaste.
What are the implications of these foreign objects existing within us? Scientists are hypothesizing that it’ll be years before we have a full grasp on what exactly the consequences could be. Microplastics were first found present in blood samples in a March 2022 study conducted by the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Researchers discovered an accurate way to measure the concentration of microplastics in our blood and their pioneering study found that microplastics were somehow finding their way into the human bloodstream through many of our day-to-day activities.
In 2018, microplastics were also found present in human stool samples. Other studies have also located them deep inside the tissues of our lungs and in other major organs. Scientists have stated that microplastics in our blood could potentially lead to inflammation and DNA damage among other risks. However, the World Health Organization comments that “there is no evidence indicating any human health problems” thus far. They also acknowledged that it could be many years until we understand more about what is happening and the consequences. There is no clear indication of what the impacts could be, but the professors who ran the Dutch study do call for concern about the findings. With microplastics circulating through our bodies, there is cause for alarm about them permanently lodging within us.
To put it into a local lens, Jennifer Savage, the senior manager of the Plastic Pollution Initiative at Surfrider Foundation’s Humboldt chapter, was asked how bad of a situation we are in. “It’s terrifying,” she says. “We don’t know what eating, breathing, and drinking plastic will do to us.”
In the samples taken for the Dutch study, half of the donors had PET plastic in their blood, the type of plastic used in bottled drinks. They also discovered that polystyrene, which makes up most food packaging, was present in a large percentage of the participants’ blood. The third most quantifiable compound the study found was polyethylene, a material used to make shopping bags. The seemingly obvious solution to this problem of tiny plastic particles finding their way into our bloodstreams is to halt all consumption and production of plastics. However, that’s very unlikely to happen.
Instead, there are alternatives to petroleum-based plastic being invented. Plastic substitutes made of biodegradable corn husks seem to be the most ideal replacement as we have so much corn readily and cheaply available. Bamboo is another promising option. It could be used to replace cutlery that was traditionally made of plastic or as an alternative to single-use plastic straws. It is also very plentiful and therefore affordable. Mycelium from mushrooms is another biodegradable alternative. There are new, more biodegradable packaging options to be found. It seems like everywhere you look, there is another plastic-free option, even if it’s just using a reusable cloth shopping bag or drinking your morning smoothie out of a mason jar.
An NBC News article reports that there is not enough research to fully understand the consequences of what it means to have plastic within us. The Dutch study was just the first of many studies needed to fully understand the effects that our dependency on plastic is having on us.
A way to get plastic particles out of the bloodstream after they find their way in has yet to be discovered. New information is coming out that certain vegetables have been shown to attract microplastics in nature, so maybe they could work to eliminate them from our blood, too? But first, we should focus on preventing plastic from finding its way into our bodies. Savage’s closing comment during our interview was a plea for moving away from our dependency on plastic as well as a plug for her organization that you should definitely check out if you haven’t already. “If people want to stop plastic pollution, they can go to surfrider.org to find resources and learn more.” To learn more about recent exciting developments in the state of California to reduce plastic production and consumption, see Solutions Summit on page 21.