Can Microplastics Kill You and What’s The Source? (The Invisible Threat)

Microplastics themselves do not directly kill humans, but their long-term health effects, including potential respiratory, endocrine, and gastrointestinal issues, are a concern.

Can microplastics kill you? While the impact of microplastics on health in the long term remains a mystery, the dangers of plastic pollution keep lurking. Some studies revealed that microplastic ingestion may lead to several health consequences for human health in the long run. How so?

Among all microplastic research studies, our experts came across a 2019 research that examined microplastic exposure in freshwater sources and drinking water. The result is jaw-dropping, stating that the global microplastic contamination reaches ten orders of magnitude.

can microplastics kill you
Can Microplastics Kill You and What’s The Source?

Following the same study, the microplastics in water contamination were dominated by Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polystyrene (PS), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), and Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), respectively. This order of microplastics in drinking water was presumably due to the demand for each plastic type worldwide.

Furthermore, chemicals in microplastics can leach into the environment. Considering this matter, more and more data is emerging regarding the discovery of microplastics in the food chain because animals eat or drink from sources with microplastic exposure. That being said, they become the sources of microplastics in food.

With these facts, our experts will invite you to learn the relationship between microplastics and human health, supported by microplastic research studies. We will also explore how microplastics in the environment are the root of the problem of microplastics in the food chain.

Key Takeaways

  • Long-term health effects of microplastics are unclear but potentially harmful.
  • Microplastics originate from larger plastic degradation and industrial activities.
  • Human exposure occurs via contaminated food, water, and air.
  • Health risks include respiratory issues, hormonal disruptions, and diseases.
  • Mitigation involves sustainable practices and improved waste and water treatment.

Understanding Microplastics

In the introduction to Can Microplastics Kill You, we briefly talked about the possible relationship between human health and microplastic particles.

However, before we discuss microplastic health risks and the sources of microplastics in food, understanding microplastics themselves is crucial. Our experts present the differences between microplastics vs. macroplastics and the sources of microplastic pollution in the following section.

1. What Are Microplastics?

Here’s how you differentiate the microplastics vs. microplastics. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), microplastics are small particles leached from plastic debris that are less than five millimeters long.

Contrary to that, macroplastics are plastic debris whose sizes are larger than five millimeters and visible to our naked eyes. 

can microplastics kill you
Danger of Microplastics

Beyond that, the NOAA also revealed some of the prominent sources of microplastic pollution that they are currently researching. Some of them are resin pellets used for plastic production, microbeads used in health and beauty products, and the broken parts of plastic pieces in the environment.

As for microbeads, the United Nations Environment Program mentioned that this has been a problem since 2012 as plastics gradually become an alternative to natural ingredients.

For that reason, President Barack Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, a microbead ban, to reduce microplastic contamination in the cosmetics and personal care industry on December 28, 2015.

Moreover, the exposure to microplastics in the environment is caused by two types of microplastics. The first is that primary microplastics are initially manufactured in small plastic particles for specific uses, such as pellets for industrial processes and synthetic fibers

Meanwhile, secondary microplastics are the breakdown of larger plastic particles due to sunlight, mechanical action, or weathering. As a result, the chemicals in microplastics can leach into the environment if there is no proper disposal or treatment beforehand.

2. Where Does Microplastics Come From?

The dangers of plastic pollution, specifically microplastics, are increasingly drawing attention due to the possible impact of microplastics on health, which is still being explored. However, before breaking this down further, our experts will discuss the sources of global microplastic contamination in more depth.

Microplastics generally come from diverse sources. However, the breakdown of more extensive plastic materials and industrial processes remains the primary cause. It significantly contributes to the environmental impact of microplastics we face today.

can microplastics kill you
Where Does Microplastics Come From?

Continuous exposure to weather, sunlight, and mechanical force causes a reduction in plastic chemicals. Some examples of plastic-made goods of concern are bottles, bags, packaging materials, industrial plastic pellets (nurdles), and other items.

As these materials decompose, the concentration of microplastic contamination becomes increasingly higher, posing the threat of microplastic pollution. This is, of course, the beginning of the discovery of microplastics in drinking water and freshwater sources, including the ocean.

And can you guess what the effects of microplastic are on marine life? The microplastic ingestion will impact their health. Not only that, you will often find exposure to microplastics in seafood. That said, microplastics have successfully entered our food chain. Although the impact of microplastics on health is still being investigated, we need to be alert and study the findings about microplastic health risks in the future.

Common Ways People Are Exposed to Microplastics

Microplastics have become an invisible threat to the environment. However, there is a possible pathway that connects microplastics and human health. But how can we find microplastics in water and our food?

One of the primary routes of microplastics in seafood, drinking water, and other foods is through contaminated water sources. Microplastics that pollute rivers, lakes, and seas will first contaminate aquatic life, including fish and shellfish.

Then, these fish and marine organisms will be caught by fishermen before finally being sold. As these aquatic organisms enter our food chain, the accumulated microplastics can end up in your seafood plate. This phenomenon is proven by a study stating that 28% of wild-caught fish sold in the Makassar fish market, Indonesia, is contaminated with microplastics.

Meanwhile, it was found that 25% of commercial fish in California, USA, were infected with microplastics. 

can microplastics kill you
Various Freshly Fish on a Fishing Wooden Boat Ready to be Sold at the Fish Market with Pieces of Plastic or Microplastic

Researchers also explored microplastic contamination in sea salt, concluding that at least each individual consumes 37 microplastic particles every year. What’s more interesting about the study is they also predict that a top European shellfish consumer could consume around 11,000 plastic particles annually. 

So, it’s unsurprising that one day, many plastic particles will be found in the human body because of this pollution.

Apart from that, microplastics in the water are also a concern. In fact, breaking down large plastics will eventually produce tiny microplastics that will infiltrate the air. And these small ones will be accidentally inhaled by humans. Moreover, indoor environments with many plastic materials have a higher risk of airborne plastics. This is because the high concentration of microplastics in the air can contaminate dust as well. 

A 2020 journal stated that PET and PC plastic particles were found in dust in 12 countries, where PET included an average of 5900 µg/g and PC 8.8 µg/g. With these facts, concerns arise regarding the health effects of microplastics. However, the connection between microplastic pollution and health, especially microplastic-related diseases, is still lacking.

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How Does Microplastics Affect Human Health?

While surfing the web to read many journals related to microplastic pollution and health, we found out that the findings about the health effects of microplastics are lacking.

However, we came across some studies that can closely estimate the potential health risks of plastic consumption and answer your concerns regarding human health and microplastic particles. 

1. Potential Risks of Microplastics on Human Health

Let’s begin by exploring the potential health risks of plastic consumption. Although the evidence of microplastic toxicity in humans is still limited, the growing concern cannot be overstated. 

You already know how plastic particles in the human body find their way into food and water. If you consume seafood, salt, or contaminated meat and plants containing microplastics, you are essentially ingesting these pollutants.

In this scenario, you might think that if these plastics can be found in shellfish and animal tissues, humans are not free from the risks of this contamination. And that’s true! 

can microplastics kill you
Microplastic in Food

Research reveals the potential toxicity of microplastics on humans due to seafood consumption. Interestingly, this study elaborates that the human body can eliminate over 90% of microplastics and nanoplastics through feces. 

However, this elimination rate highly depends on the polymer type, size, and shape of the plastic particles, as well as the chemical additives of microplastics consumed by humans. Some microplastic exposure symptoms vary widely, ranging from coughing and sneezing when exposed to airborne microplastics to disruptions of the gut microbiome that cause gastrointestinal upset when ingested.

Other findings suggest that dermal exposure to microplastics can lead to hypersensitivity in human skin.

Furthermore, a 2023 study in South Korea revealed that the inhalation of microplastics causes respiratory and lung diseases among workers who handle plastic materials directly, contributing to the potential for microplastic-related diseases.

2. Studies and Evidence Linking Microplastics to Health Issues

Various recent research studies have reported some microplastic-related diseases. One of them is the discovery that microplastics can cause endocrine disruption, leading to developmental and reproductive disorders such as miscarriage, infertility, and congenital malformations.

Not only that, these particles can apparently be inhaled through the air due to their micro size, making them easily infiltrate the air. A 2017 study stated that inhaling microplastics can lead to symptoms of microplastic exposure, including coughing and sneezing.

If this continues, it will lead to several toxicity symptoms that can cause shortness of breath, fatigue, and dizziness due to low blood oxygen concentration.

can microplastics kill you
Microplastics and Pollution Entering the Body

Furthermore, another study associates the relationship between microplastic pollution and health. It was found that microplastics in the air could be linked to respiratory issues and even cardiovascular diseases. In addition, the additives in microplastics, such as Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, can also have harmful effects. 

Exposure to these two can cause DNA mutations, cancer, and toxic reproductive effects in humans. Meanwhile, the organs most affected, which also accumulate microplastics and toxins, are the kidneys, heart, liver, and nervous systems.

Nonetheless, there is a need for further investigation regarding the relationship between plastic waste and human health. Thus, mitigating its impact and reducing microplastic consumption can be further discussed.

Can Microplastics Actually Kill You?

Now, here comes the question: can microplastics kill you? Well, the answer is not as simple as yes or no. Researchers themselves are still exploring the long-term impacts of continuous exposure to microplastics.

In the short term, health risks generally involve ingestion and inhalation. Those who unintentionally consume contaminated water and food from polluted sources may experience irritation, inflammation, and gastrointestinal issues. Beyond that, inhaling airborne microplastics may lead to respiratory issues such as sneezing and coughing.

Moreover, the long-term health consequences revolve around the accumulation of plastic particles in organs and tissues. These microplastics, especially those containing BPA and phthalates, can also cause endocrine disruption that may lead to miscarriage and fetal abnormalities. In addition, microplastics can also infiltrate the skin. The prolonged absorption of microplastics on the skin can contribute to skin irritation and other dermatological concerns.

Human Health, Nutrition and Environmental Pollution
Human Health, Nutrition and Environmental Pollution

Meanwhile, the environmental impact of microplastics is now also encroaching on human health. The contamination of ecosystems with plastic particles can affect the food chain and eventually lead to humans ingesting contaminated food, such as seafood, salt, and meat.

Now, scientists are not only discussing how to recycle plastics and reduce pollution but also exploring how to mitigate the dangers of microplastic consumption to minimize its health impacts. They are also further examining the relationship between plastic waste and human health because there is still limited evidence to answer the question of can microplastics kill you. 

Reducing Microplastic Exposure

Instead of just focusing on the topic revolving around can microplastics kill you, the dangers of microplastic consumption, and the health consequences, reducing microplastic consumption must be at the top of the list.

According to the United Nations Environmental Program, we produce 400 million tons of plastic waste annually. Meanwhile, 19 to 23 million tons of plastic pollution end up in freshwater systems, including rivers, lakes, and oceans. With these numbers, can you imagine the effects of microplastic on marine life?

For that reason, embracing sustainable practices by choosing biodegradable options rather than single-use plastics is one of the best plastic pollution solutions. This small movement can significantly reduce the number of microplastics in the environment and, of course, in the oceans.

Global Plastic Waste Management
Global Plastic Waste Management

Besides, our experts also suggest selecting natural fiber clothing and personal care products that adopt sustainability. These products help mitigate the microplastic accumulation from synthetic fabrics and materials.

Moreover, proper plastic waste disposal is another plastic pollution solution. One way that is generally done is by recycling plastic so that it doesn’t end up in landfills and break down into microplastics that contaminate the soil and groundwater.

In addition, microplastic filtration in water treatment is necessary to ensure that you consume clean and safe water to lower the risk of the consequences of plastic ingestion. By raising microplastic awareness and education, our experts hope that we can participate in responsible waste disposal initiatives and reduce microplastic pollution for a better future.

Government Regulations and Initiatives

Just so you know, Statista mentioned that the U.S. plastic waste generation is soaring, with approximately 40 million tons of municipal plastic waste estimated in 2021, 8% of it ending up in landfills. The worst part is that the U.S. recycling rate is falling, with only 5 to 6% of municipal plastic waste being recycled in the same year.

Given the increasing concerns about microplastic pollution and the shocking data above, governments are beginning to recognize the urgent need to emphasize policy changes on plastic waste. 

In the USA, the government has recently taken steps to reduce plastic pollution in the environment. Additionally, they aim to improve post-use materials management and prevent micro and nanoplastics from entering waterways.

Industry and Ecology Concept of Say No to Plastic
Industry and Ecology Concept of Say No to Plastic

Some of the initiatives they plan to implement include improving plastic product designs to provide more opportunities for refill and reuse. They are also working to increase the treatment of solid waste collection to avoid adverse impacts on communities. Moreover, they are encouraging the use of alternative products to single-use plastics and increasing public awareness to reduce plastic consumption.

Even more interesting is that the international community is working together to create regulations to increase microplastic awareness and education. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) takes the lead in coordinating international cooperation to address the issue of plastic pollution. 

Not only that, but the EU has also initiated a ban on certain single-use plastic products within the union countries to curb plastic waste. 

In addition, international agreements such as the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal also play a significant role in global plastic waste management. It regulates the reduction, restriction, and management of the regulatory system of hazardous waste.

These collective movements will hopefully shift our Earth toward a better planet for future generations.

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Final Thought

Can microplastics kill you? Not directly. Though the long-term effects of microplastics on human health need further investigation, we can understand that this notorious material is associated with several health concerns. 

Some of them are respiratory issues, inflammatory responses, and reproductive disorders due to hormonal disruption. Therefore, it’s crucial to raise awareness to reduce microplastic exposure by switching plastics to eco-friendly alternatives, like biodegradable plastics. 

To mitigate the consequences of microplastics in our environment and health, let’s collectively work towards a healthier future by opting for sustainability and sharing this information with others to stay informed and make a conscious decision to reduce microplastic exposure.