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
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
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
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:
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
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:
A list of over 500 microplastic ingredients commonly used in personal care products can be found at beatthemicrobead.org/guide-to-microplastics.
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.
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:
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.
Personal care products
Clothing, bedding, furniture
Other things to do
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.
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.
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
Although there are hundreds of microplastic compounds, these are the most common microplastics polluting our environment and our bodies:30
Here is a brief listing of some other common MP ingredients. Compare this list to the ingredients of your household products:
Microplastics unbalance the intestinal microbiome, which can lead to:
Endocrine disruption by MPs causes:
The effects of MPs on the respiratory system may cause:
The effect of MPs crossing the blood-brain barrier can cause:
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.
For more information on how to minimize your exposure to microplastics, see Healthy shopping: Your guide to going plastic-free