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Microplastic Madness: How To Protect Yourself

Environmental chemicals and pollutants are a mounting human health concern. Byproducts of various industries have a way of ending up in our water, air, soil, and food. One category of pollutants of increasing concern are called microplastics. Microplastics are defined as plastic fragments smaller than 5 mm in size, which are about half the size of a pea.

Microplastics are more dangerous than regular plastics because of their small size that makes them easier to consume. Mounting evidence shows that the damage of microplastics on the planet and on our health are increasingly profound.

Interested in learning more about how microplastics became such an environmental issue and what you can do about it? Continue reading to learn the story of how the plastics industry started from innocent, well-intentioned beginnings but evolved into a planetary and health villain.

History of The Plastic Industry

Plastics and humans have coexisted for over one hundred years. In the 1860s, John Hyatt was searching for a cheap innovation to substitute ivory in the production of checkers, billiard balls, and other game pieces. Hyatt created celluloid, the first artificial plastic, and patented his innovation.

1860s: Creation of the first artificial plastic by John Hyatt

1880s:Celluloid went on to have a massive economic impact as it's uses exploded. In the 1880s, celluloid was made into a thin transparent film used to pave the way for modern photography.

1930s: The Society of The Plastics Industry was formed as the use of plastics continued to expand. Nylon was also created in the 1930s as a substitute for silk, which greatly impacted the textile business, electric business, and automobile business. The 1930s also brought the creation of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a highly fire-resistant and versatile compound, which helped bring about big advancements in aerospace, communications, and electronics.

1940s: World War 2 created a massive demand for plastics as substitutes for scarce materials. The National Plastics Exposition started in 1946- held in New York City for curious civilians to see the latest products in the plastic industry.

1960s: Plastic surpassed aluminum to become one of the largest industries in the US. The 1960s was also the "space age" with exploding innovation and interest in space exploration. The thermal needs of space equipment and astronauts were met by the technology of the plastic industry.

1970s: This was around the time scientists started to raise concerns about microplastics. Researchers studying plankton and birds started to catch on to the burdens plastics were putting on the oceans.

1980s: The 1980s started a boom in consumer electronics. Computer chips, compact discs, camcorders, the Walkman, video games consoles, etc. all could not have existed without the plastic industry.

2000s: More plastic waste was produced than the total between the four decades prior.

2010s: In 2018, microplastics were found in the organs of more that 114 aquatic species, some inhabiting only the deepest ocean trenches.

1880s:2010s: Italian researchers identify microplastics in the human placenta.

The Impacts of Microplastics on Human Health

As you can tell from the history of plastics, the boom of many industries and advancements in technology would not be possible without plastics. The world as we know it would not be the same without plastics. The medical industry, aerospace, automobile, fashion, and electronic industries would be far less advanced without the contribution of plastics.

Tragically, plastics are extremely resistant to biodegradation. Biodegradation is the natural breakdown of products. In fact, microplastics can take hundreds to thousands of years to break down completely. The accumulation of microplastics in the environment, therefore, far exceeds the rate that they decompose. This means that microplastics are very prone to accumulation in the body. Microplastics have an especially easy time accumulating in the body due to most of them being fat-soluble.

Recent research has shown that when microplastics lodge themselves into the walls of arteries, people become more at risk for heart attack and strokes.

Microplastics also appear to activate the immune system, likely due to being a foreign body. Immune activation in the body creates chronic inflammation that can damage body tissues.

Rats fed microplastics in drinking water were found to accumulate microplastics in every organ and after only three weeks, started to show signs of dementia. Since microplastic studies on humans are unethical, animal studies demonstrate only the possibility of what could happen in humans.

Tips For Reducing Your Exposure To Microplastics

Tip #1 Moderate Seafood Consumption

Research shows that the average human consumes about 53,000 microplastic particles from seafood, the equivalent to consuming 17 credit cards. Since sea life bioaccumulates and concentrates microplastics, consumption of seafood should be moderated.

Tip #2: Purchase Products In Glass Containers, Not Plastic.

Knowing that microplastics are fat-soluble, avoid purchasing fat rich foods in plastic containers. Examples include cooking oils, olives, butter, dairy, sundried tomatoes packed in oil, artichoke hearts packed in oil, etc. If a glass container option is available, choose glass to protect your body and the environment from microplastics.

Tip #3: Filter Your Water

The filtration systems that go into you tap water do not have sufficient measures in place to protect you from microplastics.

There are many water filtration systems on the market, from countertop pitchers to systems under the sink that connect to your tap. Just be sure that whatever system you buy is endorsed to remove microplastics.

Newer research has also demonstrated that boiling water can remove 80% of microplastics, since the calcium carbonate in water solidifies at high temperatures and traps the microplastics inside.

Tip #4: Keep A Lean Body Mass

Plastics are fat soluble, meaning they are carried easily and stored in fats. Keeping a lean body mass with minimal fat tissue helps reduce the size of the reservoir in your body for microplastics to accumulate.

Exercise and sweating through physical exertion is also an excellent way to cleanse the body. In fact, research has identified a particular plastic in human sweat called bisphenol-A or BPA. BPA is commonly found in plastic bottles, containers, and the linings of canned food.

Dr. Laurel Ash ND, MS

Dr Laurel Ash, ND, MS is an Oregon and Washington board-certified Naturopathic Physician. With a passion for nutritional health, Dr Ash earned her doctorate in Naturopathy from the National University of Natural Medicine while receiving her masters in Integrative Mental Health. Her unique combination of evidence-based research and skilled knowledge in holistic medicine has allowed Dr. Ash to successfully treat many with a wide-range of issues.