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Take It In: Plastic finds its way into our bodies

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Take It In: by Carol Bareuther

The statistics about plastic pollution in our seas are staggering. Case in point, some 18 billion pounds of plastic waste finds its way from coast to ocean annually, according to the article  “Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean,” published in 2015 by Jenna Jambeck and her group at the University of Georgia, who looked at data from 192 countries. This is comparable to five grocery bags of plastic trash lining every foot of the world’s coastline, they state. 

And if that fact isn’t startling enough, consider this: It’s not just the oceans, rivers, lakes and streams that are choking on plastic; this waste is finding its way into our food supply. It’s potentially right there on your plate.

Most studies on plastic pollution to date have focused on environmental impacts rather than the effects on human health. To get a handle on the potential for the latter, Kieran Cox and colleagues at the Hakai Institute in British Columbia, Canada, put the  first-ever estimated figure on just how much plastic there is in the average American diet. They shared this information in “Human Consumption of Microplastics,” an article published in June in the American Chemical Society’s journal, Environmental Science & Technology.

To determine this figure, the researchers conducted an extensive literature search. They found 26 studies that had analyzed the quantities of microplastic particles in fish, shellfish, added sugars, salts, alcohol, tap or bottled water, and air. There wasn’t any data on other foods, so the scientists couldn’t include these in their calculations. Cox and colleagues then assessed approximately how much of these foods men, women and children eat by looking at recommended intakes spelled out in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. From this, they extrapolated an estimated microplastic consumption range of 74,000 to 121,000 particles per year, depending on age and sex. 

These numbers are likely grossly underestimated because, as mentioned, there is no data available on quantities of microplastic particles in foods that make up some 85 percent of caloric  intake in the U.S. What’s more, this analysis showed that people who consume only bottled water could drink up to an additional 90,000 microplastics annually compared with those who drink tap water only.

 The study of microplastic ingestion, whether through air or diet, is an emerging field. What scientists do know is that hazards could exist on three fronts: particle, chemical and microbial. For example, particles could accumulate and provoke the immune system into some sort of response, perhaps like an allergic reaction. 

Chemical toxicity could occur from either additives in the plastic itself or environmental pollutants that stick onto the plastic. In the case of the former, studies have shown that components in plastics, such as phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA), can affect the development of the reproductive system and brain  in unborn infants. Microplastics could also be carriers for harmful microbes.

What is of greatest concern, scientists say, is the effect of chronic exposure and the accumulative effects of more and more microplastics in our bodies. The cure? Stop plastic pollution where it starts. Do your part to prevent plastics from entering the ocean by using non-plastic plates, cups, utensils, bags and other items in your home and on the yacht where you work.

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Comments are welcome below.

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