No matter where you live, it’s hard to look around and not see something made of plastic. Yet the challenge is not the plastic we can see, but the plastic we can’t see. These so called “microplastic” particles are no bigger in size than a human hair, but a Japanese study cited in National Geographic found that there are more than 24 trillion of them in our oceans alone.
So what are microplastics?
Simply stated, they are plastic particles that are less than 5 millimetres in size with nanoplastics ranging down to a millionth of a millimetre. They are found everywhere, from Mt Everest to the surface of the oranges in your fruit bowl. We eat, breathe and absorb these particles every day and the scientific community is growing concerned about what this means for our health.
The frightening thing is that microplastics have been found inside us! Indeed, studies have found microplastics in human faeces and blood, and more troubling, in the hearts and brains of mice, which implies that they can move out of the bloodstream.
It is of course difficult to determine what effect these microplastics have on our health given the many things that impact our health on a daily basis, but it is increasingly believed that microplastics lead to oxidative stress, DNA damage and that they trigger inflammation reactions. Worse, some disease causing bacteria bind more strongly to microplastics than natural surfaces, and this presents a very potent pathway to introduce disease into our bodies.
So how much microplastic does an average person ingest each day? While we know that we eat, drink and breathe-in microplastics, the answer is unclear because the technology to measure ingestion of particles below a certain size, does not exist. So while we can only estimate it, the results are alarming.
In the USA, one study found that the average American ingests over 74 000 microplastic particles a year and given that not all micro and nanoplastic particles could be measured, this was considered to be just 15% of the actual ingestion of microplastics.
Our drinking water is in fact a major source of microplastics and may contain anything from 0 to 1000 particles per litre. Of course, bottled water, while seen as a safe source of pathogen free drinking water, is a known contributor. For many, the trade-off will be pathogenic illness from drinking contaminated water and the longer, and as yet, unquantified impacts of microplastics in the body.
To this end, The World Health Organisation is calling on bodies associated with the provision of drinking water to do all they can to remove this threat. Technologies such as filtration and ultrafiltration can remove microplastic particles down to 0.01 microns.
Water filter manufacturers such as Microfilter, a leading South Korean supplier to giants such as Samsung and LG, has achieved certification from the NSF in the United States for its FX range of microplastic removing water filters. These water filters will remove microplastics down to the 0.1 micron level and are easy to use as an economic alternative to bottled water.
Organisations like the WHO and the Plastic Health Coalition are pushing for increased research into the threats posed by microplastics, but the fact of the matter is that our backyards are so littered with plastic waste and particles, that even understanding the threat won’t go far in dealing with it. Sure, we can certainly increase our efforts to reduce plastic use and to manage plastic waste, but at the same time we need to increase the use of technologies such as water filtration, to remove as much as we can from entering our bodies in the first place. Investing in a good water filter is the first place to start.