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The problem with plastic—and how to protect yourself

Reading time: 11 minutes

We are drowning in plastics in every corner of our lives, causing a host of serious health issues. Cate Montana uncovers how to keep yourself safe

When historians look back, they may well end up naming our current civilization the Plasticene Era. Since the 1950s, the nations of the world have produced over 9 billion tons of plastic. Annual global plastic production is expected to reach 500 million tons by 2025.1

At least 80 percent of plastic waste ends up buried in landfills. Over 30 billion pounds of plastic are estimated to enter Earth’s oceans every year.2 The rest clogs our lakes, rivers and streets, blowing around and clinging to trees and fence lines.

But it’s not just the unsightly plastic bags, bottles, fishing nets, combs, disposable razors, cigarette butts, face masks and flossing picks that are problematic. Plastics do not degrade easily because they are made from petroleum, which contains propylene, a chemical that when refined into plastic creates chains of molecules called polymers. Soil and aquatic microorganisms don’t recognize the bonds that hold polymers together and thus can’t break them down like they do organic materials.

Plastic bags in the ocean can decompose in as little as 10–20 years. Plastic bottles in the ocean, however, can take up to 450 years to fall apart. In a landfill, bags can take as long as 1,000 years to crumble.3

But what does a plastic bag or razor “crumble” into? They may break down into microplastics, which are less than 5 mm in length and clearly visible. Or they become nanoplastics that are less than 1 millionth of a meter (0.000001 m) in size and can’t even be viewed with a common microscope.

These tiny plastic particles are made up of polymers and other chemicals added in the manufacturing process. Microplastics also attract and bond to other industrial pollutants, including heavy metals and dyes.4

Sources of microplastics

Microplastics (MPs) are divided into two categories: primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are deliberately manufactured for use in consumer products like pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and insecticides. Secondary microplastics are created when larger plastic materials break down through recycling and waste disposal and through exposure to UV rays, rain and other weather conditions.

Micro- and nano-sized plastic particles are released into the environment during the production and transport of plastic products, ending up in the air and in wastewater. Unfortunately, the filtration systems installed in modern wastewater treatment facilities aren’t designed to filter them out of the water before it’s released back into the environment.

Modern farming practices are an enormous contributor to the microplastics pollution load. For example, commercial growers often cover vast acres of the earth with plastic film to reduce the growth of weeds and grasses in orchards and around vegetable and fruit crops. The enormous plastic sheets release MPs into the groundwater.

As well, plastic irrigation pipes release MPs. The granules of industrial fertilizers are coated with microplastics to ensure a slower release of the chemicals into the soil. These plastics are also used as coloring and anti-caking agents.

Commercial sludge from waste plants, used as agricultural fertilizer, contains MPs that leach into the groundwater and go airborne on the winds. Trillions of nanoparticles of plastic are even released into the sewer system when you conscientiously use hot water to wash your plastic bags and bottles for reuse in the home.5

In addition to all the packaging and food containers we use, other sources of MPs in our homes are cleaning products, paints, adhesives, flooring and furniture. Even our electronic devices and electrical wiring release toxic microplastics into the air.

Surprisingly, the majority of indoor microplastic pollution comes from synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon and acrylics used in clothing, curtains and carpeting. Those soft, cozy synthetic fleece blankets, throws and jackets are major culprits when it comes to microplastic pollution. On average 1,174 mg of microfiber plastics are released into the water system when washing a single fleece jacket in the washing machine.6

Another form of primary microplastic is microbeads, tiny bits of plastic that manufacturers add to exfoliators, body washes, toothpastes and other personal cleansing products to give them their scrubbing power. Approximately 1 mcm in diameter, microbeads are far too small to see.

Studies show that using an exfoliating scrub can release 4,500–94,500 microbeads of plastic into the water with each use. Toothpaste releases approximately 4,000 microbeads every time you brush. And a lot of those microbeads end up being swallowed.4

50 plastic bags

In a 2021 study, researchers examined the average microplastic content of common beverages, condiments, honey, meat, seafood and vegetables. From just these sources, they estimated that people could be consuming as much as the equivalent of 50 plastic grocery bags each year.7

The amount of microplastics found in water alone is concerning. Tap water from 159 global sources was tested, and 81 percent of the samples were found to contain microplastic particles.8

One study tested 11 globally distributed brands of bottled water purchased in nine different countries and found microplastics in 93 percent. Far more microplastics were found in bottled water than in water from the tap.9

On top of bottled water and other bottled beverages, seafood is a huge source of microplastics in the human diet. Fish, crustaceans, mollusks and other sea creatures absorb MPs from plastics dumped in the ocean—which are frequently coated in various chemical pollutants.

These toxins accumulate in the seafood, resulting in DNA damage, reduced cellular function, depressed immune system function, cytotoxicity and other adverse effects. Ingestion of these polluted aquatic organisms inevitably results in similar symptoms and issues in humans.10

A serious health situation

Microplastics are everywhere—adhesives and glues, office supplies, auto interiors and tires, artificial leather, dyes, toys and road paints. Micro- and nanoplastics can be ingested, inhaled and absorbed through the skin.11 Even in minimal doses, they are toxic to both humans and animals, damaging cell function, disrupting the immune system response, and triggering oxidative stress and genetic mutations.

MPs and nanoplastics absorb and bind to other harmful chemicals commonly used in plastic production, such as bisphenols and phthalates, dioxins, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, perfluorinated compounds, heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyl ethers and organic contaminants.

They then carry these substances with them when they enter the body.12 The effects of the companion chemicals are overwhelmingly negative:

  • Bisphenols and phthalates are known endocrine disruptors negatively affecting hormone production, thyroid function and reproductive health. As a result, they cause infertility as well as autoimmune and metabolic conditions.13
  • Dioxins are a known cause of cardiovascular disease.14
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are bioaccumulative and can cause tumors, thyroid hormone imbalance and neurodevelopmental problems.15
  • Perfluorinated compounds disrupt immune system, thyroid and liver function. They cause lipid and insulin dysregulation, kidney disease and cancer.16
  • Heavy metals cause DNA damage and cancer. They also interfere with natural cell growth and death processes.17
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) accumulate in fatty tissues and are associated with liver and heart disease, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory diseases, endocrine dysfunction and possibly cancer.18

Nanoparticles of plastic can damage cellular function and activate inflammatory gene transcription.19 The abundance of microplastics ingested from seafood is believed to increase cancer risk in humans.20 The particles also contribute to irritable bowel syndrome.21

Pre- and postnatal exposure to microplastics is a risk factor for autism spectrum disorder.22 Micro- and nanoplastic accumulation creates oxidative stress, possibly leading to brain disorders and behavioral changes.23

A study of the impact of microplastics on the brain found that in three weeks of exposure to microplastics through drinking water, they began accumulating in every organ, including the brain, triggering dementia-like symptoms in mice.24

As known endocrine disruptors, microplastics interfere with hormone receptors and glands, negatively impacting the pituitary, thyroid, hypothalamus and adrenal glands as well as the testes and ovaries.12

This endocrine-disrupting activity links micro- and nanoplastics to the current explosion of obesity in Western nations, especially in the US. Studies have labeled microplastics as “obesogens” because they are believed to destroy the body’s natural weight-control mechanisms through prenatal or early-life exposure.25

Products containing microplastics

Unfortunately, MPs are in nearly everything we use and in every setting we spend our day-to-day lives in. Here are some of the worst offenders.

Home and personal care products

The major sources of primary microplastics (commercial products using MPs) in the home are detergents, cosmetics, personal care products, pharmaceuticals and insecticides. Although in the US the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 bans the manufacture of “rinse-off cosmetics” containing microbeads, the law doesn’t begin to seriously address the issue.

The average exfoliating shower gel has as much plastic in microbead form as the plastic container it comes in. Some commercial detergent brands have been found to release 2.5 million microbeads per load of laundry. Even organic detergents have been found to contain microplastics, though in lesser quantities.26

Liquid and powder dishwashing detergents also release MPs. And the longer the dishwasher cycle and the hotter the water used, the more microplastics are released.27

MPs are used as binders for chemical additives in our cosmetics, shampoos, face creams and face powders and are designed to increase waterproofing. They coat the hair and skin, giving them a soft, smooth feel.

Acrylates/C10-30 and alkyl acrylate crosspolymer are synthetic polymers used as texture enhancers, emulsifiers, and film-forming and thickening agents. MPs like these are primarily found in the following products:

  • Mascara
  • Lipstick and lip gloss
  • Foundation
  • Highlighter
  • Facial powder
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Artificial eyelashes
  • Toothbrushes
  • Toothpaste
  • Facial and hand cleansers
  • Shaving products
  • Sunscreen

A list of over 500 microplastic ingredients commonly used in personal care products can be found at beatthemicrobead.org/guide-to-microplastics.

Pharmaceuticals

In an effort to make drug delivery faster and more efficient, plastic particles and polymers are often used in many drug formulations as stabilizers and enhancers. Although there are now labeling and reporting rules for microplastics added to drugs, there is no current regulation banning their use.

Food sources

Plastic packaging is undoubtedly the worst culprit when it comes to transferring microplastics into our food supply. However, microplastics are common in commercial livestock feeds (many feed bags are plastic) and have now been found in the blood of farm animals and in milk entering the food chain and then us.

Microplastics can also penetrate the roots, leaves, fruits and even seeds of many plants and have now been found in apples, carrots, pears and lettuce, with the highest concentration in apples.28 Here are the current major food sources of microplastics:

  • Bottled water
  • Seafood
  • Sea salt
  • Soy products
  • Honey
  • Tea

Minimize your exposure to microplastics

Aside from moving to a distant farm in Patagonia or outer Mongolia and raising all your own food by hand, the steps below are the best anyone can do to minimize exposure to toxic microplastics in their daily life.

Food

  • Start your own veggie garden in your backyard.
  • Use filtered tap water.
  • Eliminate plastic food containers—use glass only for home use.
  • Don’t buy food wrapped in plastic or packaged in plastic containers.
  • Never heat or microwave food in plastic.
  • Buy organic fruits, veggies, meats, eggs and dairy from local farms, farmers’ markets or other farm-to-table suppliers.
  • Reduce seafood consumption.
  • Buy local honey.
  • Avoid sea salts.
  • Use loose tea instead of tea in bags. Many commercial tea bags contain plastic.
  • Avoid canned foods and beverages. BPA and PVC are used in epoxy can
  • Stop chewing gum. The gum base in commercial gums is a mix of various plastics including polyethylene, artificial coloring and chemical flavors.
  • Buy glass-bottled milk and cream. Most “paper” cartons have a plastic coating.
  • Avoid food in shelf-stable cartons. These cartons average 74 percent paper, 22 percent plastic and 4 percent aluminum.
  • Avoid cheap commercial sports “supplements” and drinks. Many contain estrogenic endocrine disruptors.
  • Avoid meal delivery kits that use a lot of plastic packaging (most do!).

 Personal care products

  • Check labels and buy organic products with simple, natural ingredients and low-impact packaging.
  • Look for brands that carry the “Zero Plastic Inside” logo.
  • Use natural exfoliants like sugar or sand scrubs.
  • Eliminate artificial fragrances.

 Clothing, bedding, furniture

  • Stop using synthetic materials.
  • Buy clothing, bedding materials, furniture and decorative fabrics made of natural fibers like cotton, wool, silk, flax, hemp, bamboo, ramie, jute or abaca.
  • If you buy fleece and other synthetic clothing, go high quality. It sheds fewer fibers.
  • Use eco-strip delivery systems instead of laundry soaps in plastic bottles.
  • Read labels and avoid detergents with plastics.
  • Use a front-loading instead of top-loading washing machine. Top-loading machines are more aggressive in agitation and cause more fiber breakage.
  • Wash in cold water. Hot water releases more microplastics from clothing.
  • Avoid washing balls. They cause more breakage of fibers in the wash cycle.
  • Try using the Guppyfriend laundry bag (en.guppyfriend.com or guppyfriend.us) or a Cora Ball (coraball.com) to capture microplastics in the wash.
  • Wash clothes lessoften, especially synthetics.
  • Use cloth diapers. Disposables are primarily plastic.

 Other things to do

  • Vacuum and dust frequently.
  • Avoid touching “paper” receipts in stores—most contain high levels of BPA, which is absorbed through the skin.
  • Use natural fiber reusable bags for shopping.
  • Eliminate plastic straws.
  • Don’t use plastic dishes or utensils.
  • Buy an old-fashioned metal razor and change the blades.
  • Buy reusable mugs and water bottles made of ceramic, glass or stainless steel.
  • Use matches or a refillable metal lighter instead of disposable plastic lighters.

Detoxing from microplastics

One of the most direct ways to tell if you’re dealing with microplastic toxicity is by getting tested. The Mosaic Diagnostics GPL-TOX Profile (mosaicdx.com) is a urine-based assessment that screens for 173 environmental toxins, including many plastics and the chemicals they bind to.

If your test shows your body has a high level of MPs, or if you think you might, improving your diet is the first step on the road to better health. There are also other steps you can take.

 Detox diet

  • Eat whole, organic foods.
  • Consume lots of brassicas and cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, collard greens, arugula, turnips, rutabaga, and radishes.
  • Asparagus, pineapple, red grapes and citrus also help with detox.
  • Eat lots of fermented foods: homemade sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt (low or no sugar), kefir, kimchi, miso, natto, tempeh, raw cheeses, kombucha and kvass.
  • Eat high-fiber meals and lots of green salads.
  • Use an organic, unfiltered apple cider vinegar on your salads.
  • Black tea reduces BPA toxicity. Drink loose leaf (tea bags often contain plastic).
  • Curcumin, rosemary, rooibos tea and honeybush tea support glucuronidation (the breakdown of BPA by the liver), scavenge free radicals and chelate with metal ions.
  • Acai and other berries are high in antioxidants: lingonberries, black raspberries, elderberries, gooseberries, wild blueberries.

On the other hand, avoid refined sugars and flours as well as all processed foods that support microbes feeding on simple sugars, plastics, heavy metals and other toxins.

Detox protocols

There are no studies showing that common detox protocols will work with microplastics, such as using gut-cleansing substances like bentonite clay and food-grade diatomaceous earth to pull toxins out of the gut. However, it just makes sense that a healthy intestinal cleanse will help purge the body of microplastics as well.

Far infrared saunas

Since microplastics can get into the body through the skin, they can also leave the body through the skin. The heat from saunas—especially infrared saunas—expands capillaries and blood vessels, increasing blood flow and carrying toxins released by the cells out of the body as you sweat.

According to functional medicine expert Dr Sarah Myhill, 50 far infrared sauna sessions will roughly cut your toxic load in half.29

Types of microplastics

Although there are hundreds of microplastic compounds, these are the most common microplastics polluting our environment and our bodies:30

  • polyethylene (PE)
  • polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
  • polyamide (PA)
  • polypropylene (PP)
  • polystyrene (PS)
  • polyvinyl alcohol (PVA)
  • polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
  • polystyrene (PS)
  • polyurethane (PU)

Here is a brief listing of some other common MP ingredients. Compare this list to the ingredients of your household products:

  • Acrylates copolymer
  • Acrylates crosspolymer
  • Butylene
  • Carbomer or polyacrylic acid
  • Dimethicone
  • Ethylene
  • Methacrylate copolymer
  • Methacrylate crosspolymer
  • Methyl methacrylate copolymer
  • Methyl methacrylate crosspolymer
  • Phthalate
  • Polyacrylamide
  • Polyacrylate
  • Polyamide or nylon
  • Polyethylene
  • Polyethylene terephthalate
  • Polypropylene
  • Polyurethane
  • Polyvinyl
  • Propylene copolymer or polypropylene
  • PVP
  • Styrene copolymer
  • Tetrafluoroethylene
  • Vinyl acetate copolymer
  • VP/VA copolymer

Symptoms of microplastic toxicity

Microplastics unbalance the intestinal microbiome, which can lead to:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • IBS
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Endocrine disruption by MPs causes:

  • Metabolic disorders
  • Developmental disorders
  • Infertility
  • Miscarriage
  • Congenital malformations

The effects of MPs on the respiratory system may cause:

  • Oxidative stress in lungs and airways
  • Coughing, sneezing and shortness of breath
  • Low blood oxygen concentration
  • Fatigue and dizziness31

The effect of MPs crossing the blood-brain barrier can cause:

  • Cognitive dysfunction32
  • Dementia (based on a study in mice)33

The best detox supplements

Studies examining ways to naturally remove microplastics from the body are rare. The few that are available indicate that probiotics can bind to toxins and may overcome the toxicity of polystyrene nanoplastics and microplastics in the human body. As well, Lactobaccillus acidophilus NCFM inhibits phthalate-caused DNA damage and cell death.34

Antioxidants have proven to be highly effective in helping to remove toxins from the body, and some sources recommend using antioxidants when dealing with microplastics. No dosages have been determined, so follow the standard dosages found on the labels.

  • Bifidobacterium breve, a probiotic found in breastmilk, is anti-inflammatory and improves gut health.
  • Lactobacillus casei, another probiotic, has strong antioxidant properties.
  • Calcium d-glucarate supports the liver’s glucuronidation detox process, which makes insoluble substances (like microplastics) more water-soluble and allows for their removal.
  • Coenzyme Q10 is an antioxidant that reverses the reproductive damage caused by BPA.
  • Chlorella helps remove heavy metals and other toxins, like dioxin, from the body. It may help pull microplastics that have bonded with heavy metals out of the body.
  • Digestive enzymes may also help. Taken between meals, they act as systemic enzymes, breaking down foreign proteins and other toxins.
  • Diindolylmethane (DIM), a compound in cruciferous vegetables, helps the body metabolize estrogens and may mitigate metabolic imbalances.
  • Vitamins C and E have strong antioxidant properties.
  • Quercetin scavenges free radicals and chelates with metal ions.
  • EGCG is a polyphenol antioxidant that has free radical–scavenging abilities.
  • Resveratrol has similar scavenging potential to quercetin and EGCG.

For more information on how to minimize your exposure to microplastics, see Healthy shopping: Your guide to going plastic-free 

References
  1. Plastic Soup Foundation, “Plastic Facts & Figures,” accessed Dec 12, 2023, plasticsoupfoundation.org
  2. Oceana, “Tackling the Plastics Crisis at the Source,” 2023, usa.oceana.org
  3. Andrew Lisa, “How Long It Takes 50 Common Items to Decompose,” April 14, 2023, stacker.com
  4. J Hazard Mater Adv, 2023; 9(2004): 100215
  5. Environ Sci Technol, 2022; 56(9): 5448–55
  6. Environ Sci Technol, 2016; 50(21): 11532–38
  7. Sci Total Environ, 2022; 806(pt 1): 150263
  8. PLoS One, 2018; 13(4): e0194970
  9. Front Chem, 2018: 6: 407
  10. Environ Chem Lett, 2023; 21: 2129–69
  11. Nanomaterials (Basel), 2021; 11(2): 496
  12. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne), 2022; 13: 1084236
  13. Curr Opin Endocrinol Diabetes Obes, 2022; 29(2): 87–94
  14. Environ Health Perspect, 2008; 116(11): 1443–48
  15. Clin Med Res, 2003; 1(4): 281–90
  16. Environ Toxicol Chem, 2021; 40(3): 606–30
  17. Front Pharmacol, 2021: 12: 643972
  18. Drug Deliv Transl Res, 2018; 8(3): 740–59
  19. Sci Total Environ, 2019: 694: 133794
  20. J Hazard Mater, 2020: 398: 122994
  21. Environ Sci Technol, 2022; 56(1): 414–21
  22. Environ Int, 2022: 161: 107121
  23. Part Fibre Toxicol, 2020; 17: 24
  24. Int J Mol Sci, 2023; 24(15): 12308
  25. CRGSC, 2020; 3: 100009; Endocrinology, 2006; 147(6 supp): S50–5
  26. Nicole DeRoberts, “Washing Laundry May Be an Underappreciated Source of Microplastic Pollution,” Aug 22, 2019, news.climate.columbia.edu
  27. Environ Sci Pollut Res Int, 2023; 30(15): 45140–50
  28. Environ Res, 2020; 187: 109677
  29. Sarah Myhill, “Disease Prevention,” May 2022, drmyhill.co.uk
  30. J Hazard Mater Adv, 2023; 9(2004): 100215
  31. Yonsei Med J, 2023; 64(5): 301–8
  32. Part Fibre Toxicol, 2020; 17: 24
  33. Int J Mol Sci, 2023; 24(15): 12308
  34. Free Radic Biol Med, 2011; 51(5): 1000–13
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