Recently, scientists discovered microplastics in human blood: About 77% of the people who were tested were found to have microplastics in their bloodstream. While this is sobering fact, it’s not surprising, says Philip Kuriakose, M.D., a hematologist and medical oncologist at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute.
“The question isn’t how are they getting into our bloodstream,” he says. “The question is how could they not? Microplastics have been found at the top of Mount Everest and on the ocean floor. They’ve been found in a large, remote European ice cap. They’ve been found in the placenta of fetuses. They’re everywhere. We’re living in a bubble of plastic—our homes, clothes, cars, beds, cosmetics, cups, food, drinks, bottles and pacifiers—plastic is in everything.”
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic—anything that’s less than 5 millimeters in size—that break off from larger pieces of plastic. The fact that they’re so small makes them dangerous: they’re able to permeate tissue and get stuck in our organs, finding their way into places that bigger pieces of plastic can’t access. In fact, a 2019 study found that we ingest enough microplastics to make a credit card each week.
How Microplastics Are Affecting Our Health
At this point, we don’t have adequate studies to tell us exactly how microplastics are damaging our health, says Dr. Kuriakose, but we can use common sense. Microplastics may interfere with organ functioning and cell regeneration, causing a host of issues.
“We wonder why people are having increased intestinal intolerance, alterations in bowel patterns, problems with breathing capacity—microplastics have been found deep in the lungs, too,” he says. “As of late, we’ve been seeing increasing malignancies in cancer in younger folks, and we ask ourselves why. Go back 30 years: we were giving our kids plastic bottles, pacifiers.”
Here are just a few issues that microplastics may be causing:
- Microplastics may act as endocrine disruptors, meaning they behave like hormones in our bodies, confusing our regulating hormones into thinking there’s too much or too little of that hormone, or blocking the effects of our own hormones. When our hormone balance is off, it could lead to fertility issues, blood sugar imbalances, metabolic issues, hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism, autoimmune diseases, growth problems—and much more.
- Microplastics may contribute to cancer. “This is purely conjecture, but knowing that microplastics are so small and can land on our cell membranes, they could cause issues with our cells’ ability to regenerate healthy, new cells,” says Dr. Kuriakose. “Our bodies are very dependent upon our ability to repair damages. Our cells are constantly regenerating and we’re dying a thousand deaths every day, but we don’t realize it because our genes are often able to suppress those abnormal, cancer-causing cells. But if microplastics are interfering with cell regeneration, it may cause a higher incidence of cancer and other diseases.”
Babies may be particularly susceptible to microplastics, as they chew on toys, pacifiers, bottles—anything they can get their hands on. One study found that there were more microplastics in the feces of babies than adults. The study says: “Although microplastics were once thought to pass harmlessly through the gastrointestinal tract and exit the body, recent studies suggest that the tiniest pieces can cross cell membranes and enter the circulation. In cells and laboratory animals, microplastic exposure can cause cell death, inflammation and metabolic disorders.”
How To Reduce Our Exposure To Microplastics
While we can’t eliminate our microplastic exposure—we’d have to move to a different planet to do so—we can lessen our exposure by making small changes:
- Don’t drink out of plastic water bottles. Use filtered tap water instead.
- When you go grocery shopping, take a reusable cloth bag with you instead of using plastic grocery bags.
- Watch your seafood intake. We all know that fish is good for us, but it may also contain microplastics from the sea. Eat it in moderation.
- Drink loose leaf tea instead of bagged tea. When it’s brewed, tea bags that contain plastic may release microplastics into your drink. Opt for plastic-free tea bags or loose-leaf tea.
- For your babies: Don’t heat their bottles in the microwave. Heat their formula in a non-plastic container and transfer it to their bottle afterward. If you can, stick to BPA-free toys and goods. (BPA is one of the worst types of plastics.) Try buying them clothing made from natural fabrics like cotton, linen and wool instead of synthetic, plastic-containing fabrics like polyester, nylon and acrylic.
“We can also help support organizations that are trying to eliminate the use of single-use plastics and those that are trying to find new, healthier alternatives,” says Dr. Kuriakose. “When plastics were created, we didn’t know how harmful they would be. Today it’s plastics, tomorrow it will be something else. I think we should also keep in mind that we don’t live in a microcosm, so what we do here can affect someone in Tokyo. We’re all connected. This really has to be an initiative across the world—not just relegated to one part of it.”
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Philip Kuriakose, M.D., is a hematologist and medical oncologist. He is a senior staff physician at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute and medical director of the Henry Ford Hemophilia Treatment Center. He sees patients at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute in Detroit and Henry Ford Medical Center—Columbus.