Breathing in Microplastic: The Newest Form of Air Pollution Destroying Our Lungs
We’re at a point now where plastic is so persistent in our environment, that now it’s ending up in our bodies. A recent study conducted by the Environment Agency Austria figures that over half of the world population may harbor microplastics in their stools.
While we can take measures to reduce the amount of microplastic we consume (whether that’s avoiding shellfish or sourcing our salt from companies who test their products for plastic), breathing in microplastic is a whole other ball game. We can’t necessarily prevent ourselves from breathing in plastic if it’s in the very air we’re surrounded by day in, day out.
It wouldn’t be such a major concern if microplastic was harmless – but it’s the very opposite. Breathing in microplastics may negatively impact the immune system, digestive system, cardiovascular system, and of course, the respiratory system.
What Are Microplastics?
Microplastic is a type of plastic debris that is less than five millimeters in length (about the size of a sesame seed or smaller). They are categorized by their source: primary and secondary.
Primary microplastics are purposefully made to be that size (like the tiny plastic beads found in toothpaste and facial scrubs), while secondary microplastics are bits of plastic that break down from larger pieces (like the plastic that breaks down in plastic water jugs or bottles) (1).
Thousands of personal care products sold across the world contain microplastics. While the cosmetic industry calls them microbeads, they’re essentially the same thing. These tiny beads are processed in products like shampoo and scrubs. But even products that don’t contain microbeads might still contain plastic. Anything from sunburn lotions to moisturizers and make-up can all contain microplastics.
Once microplastics enter the environment, they do not decompose. Instead, they accumulate (particularly in our oceans, lakes, rivers and streams) and are then consumed by wildlife and people.
According to a scientific review published in 2018, plastic production has increased by 8.7 percent annually, since 1960. The industry of plastic production rings in around $600 billion to this day (so you can see why simply getting rid of plastic will take some work). It is estimated that over eight million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans every year, with around 5.25 trillion plastic particles currently circulating the oceans surface.
Breathing in Microplastic
Research shows that much of the microplastics in our bodies come from the air we breathe, both indoors and outdoors.
In fact, microplastic pollution is so incessant that even pristine, remote mountain regions are victim to the stuff.
A recent study published in Nature Geoscience found that microplastic is raining down on remote mountaintops. Scientists recorded a daily rate of 365 microplastic particles per square meter falling from the sky in the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France. The study demonstrated that microplastics can travel over 60 miles (or 95 kilometers) through the air. So even if you’re not living in a highly populated area (like a city), microplastics can still “reach and affect remote, sparsely inhabited areas through atmospheric transport.”
The most common microplastics found were polystyrene and polyethylene, both extensively used in single-use packaging and plastic bags.
“When you get down to respiratory size particles, we don’t know what those do,” Deonie Allen, a researcher at EcoLab, told The Guardian. “That is a really big unknown, and we don’t want it to end up something like asbestos.”
Unfortunately, researchers have studied the effects of plastic particles on lung tissue, and the findings are concerning. According to one study, “these bioresistant and biopersistent cellulosic and plastic fibers are candidate agents contributing to the risk of lung cancer.”
The chance of breathing in microplastics increases exponentially as you travel from outdoors to indoors, according to research presented in 2018 by École Nationales des Ponts et Chaussées.
Microplastics from indoor air result from the fragmentation through friction, heat, or light of plastic objects found around our homes. This includes toys, furniture, clothing, plastic bags, cosmetics, toothpaste and scrubs. The worst offender is furniture and clothing made from synthetic materials like acrylic, nylon, and polyester (which make up to 60% of the global textile production). These microplastic fibers are longer than most, and are therefore more harmful when inhaled.
The full health effects of breathing in microplastics is not yet entirely understood, but research proves that the threat to human health is high.
Health Dangers of Microplastics
Does ingesting or breathing in microplastic damage health? According to many studies, it does. Much of the research done on microplastic focuses on nano-sized plastic particles. Microplastics smaller than 25 microns can enter the human body through the nose or mouth, and those less than five microns can end up in lung tissue (2).
Microplastics also tend to be sticky and can therefore accumulate heavy metals like mercury and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) including brominated flame retardants and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). For this reason, they become a major hazard to the health of not only humans, but any breathing organism.
1. Respiratory Health
As mentioned above, plastic fibers have been found in human lung tissue, with those researchers suggesting they are “candidate agents contributing to the risk of lung cancer” (3).
Factory workers who handle nylon and polyester have also shown evidence of lung irritation and reduced breathing capacity. In a scientific review called ‘Plastic and Human Health: A Micro Issue?”, researchers outline different ways in which microplastics irritate lung tissue. They make note that some plastic fibers avoid lung clearance mechanisms (like being encapsulated in mucus to be coughed out), and instead stay in the lung, inducing acute or chronic inflammation.
The review also outlines how fiber size plays a role in toxicity. Thinner fibers are respirable, whereas longer fibers are more persistent and toxic to pulmonary cells. Fibers that are 15-20 micrometers in length cannot be efficiently cleared from the lung by alveolar macrophages and the mucociliary escalator (4). Fibers even smaller (less than 0.3 micrometers thick and over 10 micrometers long) are most carcinogenic (5).
Fine diameter fibers (those most closely associated with lung cancer) have increased in production over the years, particularly in the sports clothing industry (like yoga pants).
2. Inflammation and Immune Responses
Immunological responses to plastic in the body are mainly dependent on the types of plastics used. Many studies have found that polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is more harmful than polyethylene (PE). In studies done on plastic prosthetic implants, surrounding tissue experiences drastic changes in reaction to PET particles. In joint cavities with large quantities of PET fibers, the immune system is unable to shuttle the particles out of the body (by way of the lymphatic system), thus inducing immune system stress and overload (6).
In other studies, PE wear particles were detected in the liver or spleen of 14% of patients (7). The PE particles identified were less than 1 micrometer in size and accumulated in the “portal tracts” of the liver (most likely by means of lymphatic transport). The inflammatory response to plastic wear particles like PET and PE in lymph nodes has been shown to include immune activation of macrophages and associated production of cytokines (8).
This could, over time, lead to autoimmune disease as a result of a constantly fired up, and stressed out immune system (and resulting chronic inflammation).
3. Gastrointestinal System Distress
The fact that microplastics have been discovered in human stool samples points to major implications for the functioning of our gut as a whole.
In studies on zebra fish (an animal often used to study intestinal diseases because they are genetically similar to humans), polystyrene microplastics induced changes in glycolipid and energy metabolism. The gut microbiome of the zebrafish was also altered, which reduced the variety of good gut bacteria populating the fish. Reduced diversity of the gut microbiome is highly correlated with inflammatory bowel disease (9).
Those who have already compromised guts (whether that be inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome or Chron’s disease), also have a condition termed leaky gut syndrome. With this condition, the gut becomes semi-permeable, and undigested food stuffs can enter the bloodstream, leading to a host of different diseases and illnesses. Those with leaky gut syndrome will then be left more susceptible to things like microplastic pollution.
In addition to the above implications of microplastic circulating in the body, nano-particle sized micoplastics can also induce cardiopulmonary responses, disrupt our hormones (think BCPs), trigger genotoxicity and oxidative stress, as well as modulate nutrient absorption (10).
Other Ways Microplastic Enters Our Body
Breathing in microplastic is just one way these plastic fibers end up in our body. Another place someone could ingest microplastics is if they consume fish or shellfish.
In 2016, a UN report documented over 800 animal species contaminated with plastic via ingestion or entanglement. This number is around 70% greater than a 1977 review that estimated 247 contaminated species at the time.
When fish and other seafood ingest microplastic, it becomes apart of their body. Then, when a human consumes that animal, they too, ingest microplastic.
Research presented at the 26th United European Gastroenterology Week confirmed that microplastics are capable of accumulating in the human intestinal tract. It showed that out of eight individuals from the UK, Austria, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, and Japan, every single one had traces of microplastics in their stool. According to lead researcher, Philipp Schwabl, Ph.D., and Bettina Liebmann of the Environment Agency Austria, seafood and water bottles are to blame.
Another study published in April of 2018 found microplastics in packaged sea salt, beer, bottled water and tap water. Based on consumer guidelines, their results indicated that the average person ingests over 5,800 particles of synthetic debris from these three sources, annually, with the largest contribution coming from tap water (88%).
How to Avoid Microplastics
Avoiding microplastics is challenging, if not impossible. But there are ways we can reduce our exposure. If you don’t want to end up with a body full of plastic, these tips might help out:
The fact that indoor air pollution is worse for microplastic exposure than outdoor air means that a high-quality indoor air filter is essential. If you’re not a fan of the idea of breathing in microplastic, then getting a machine like the Intellipure would be a smart investment.
Have you ever been near a window inside your home when the sunshine was coming in at just the right angle and saw little particles floating in the air? Those particles are not only dirt, but they’re microplastics and fibers that you inhale day in, day out.
Using this air purifier in my home has not only helped me breathe better, but it makes me feel better, too. As soon as you turn it on, you can see all those tiny sun-lit particles being sucked into the machine and captured at the source.
I trust and believe in the Intellipure so much, that I partnered up with them to make it easier for you to try the same air purifier I’ve been using. If you use the code “LIVELOVEFRUIT” at checkout here, you’ll receive an exclusive discount.
If you drink tap water, you could be at risk of not only microplastics, but hormones, drugs, and other chemicals. I personally use the Berkey Water Filter with 2 carbon-based elements, and 2 fluoride/arsenic filters. It not only makes the water taste great, but it gets rid of essentially every chemical, hormone, drug and microplastic you could imagine.
Another good option for removing microplastics from the water is reverse osmosis. A lot of the time you can get an 18 liter water jug from the grocery store, but this water is stored in plastic, which can very easily leach into the water we drink. A better option would be to install a reverse osmosis water filtration system in your home (but this can get pricey). If that is not an option, the counter-top water filter like the Berkey is your best bet.
3. Avoid Fish and Seafood When Possible
The title is clear – if you can avoid fish and seafood when possible, you’d reduce your chances of ingesting microplastic by enormous amounts. Since microplastics inundate our waters, almost all fish and shellfish is tainted.
4. Reducing Dependence on Plastic
Reducing how much plastic we use is another great way to stop the cycle of microplastics from ending up in our environment. Stop drinking from plastic water bottles, and avoid styrofoam containers (take your own containers to bring back food with you if you’re eating out). Stay away from products that contain microbeads (which can be found in scrubs and toothpaste). Bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store. The possibilities for reducing plastic consumption are endless.