Humans Consume 39,000-52,000 Microplastics a Year

Health Effects May Include Reproductive and Digestive Issues

The rising concern around microplastics’ effect on water quality and human health has accelerated after a new study estimated humans consume 39,000 – 52,000 microplastics a year. According to the study, individuals that consume the recommended amount of tap water could be ingesting an additional 4,000 plastic particles every year due to particles shed from plastic pipes or already present in water supplies.

“It’s probably the case that more plastic is being added than we realize,” said Kieran Cox, the author of the study.

How Did We Get Here?

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic (less than 5 millimeters in length) shed by plastic products as they’re damaged by natural forces, such as the sun’s UV rays breaking down a water bottle, or the nonstop flow of water wearing on plastic pipes. Over time, the chemical structure begins to break down on a visible or even microscopic scale, release fragments of plastic into the environment. These plastic shards may be released directly into water sources or they may find their way there from other places, putting water quality at risk.

Health Effects of Microplastics

The damage microplastics inflict on human health is still being researched. However, a study from John Hopkins University found microplastic build up can harm the immune system and disrupt the human gut’s balance. It’s also well known that microplastics release chemical additives that are harmful to human health or reproduction, as demonstrated by studies examining the toxicity of microplastics.

According to Leah Bendell, an ecotoxicologist at Simon Fraser University, microplastics have “different personalities” as they come from different forms of plastic. Some plastics release toxic chemicals, while others provide suitable environments for bacteria and parasites. These differences have already been observed among the variants of plastic pipes.

Finding a Solution

Eliminating microplastics from our diet and lifestyle is not straightforward: the fragments can come from any type of plastic. To reduce the amount consumed through tap water sources, building owners should add filters designed to remove microplastics, and consider replacing any plastic products that handle or transport water, such as piping and bottles with more sustainable alternatives. “We haven’t considered ourselves to be a potential impact [of plastic pollution], but we are,” said Cox.