Plastic can be found anywhere in the world today. Some of them can never be seen by our naked eyes. Experts call them microplastics, any type of plastic less than 5 millimeters in length, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the European Chemicals Agency.
Microplastics are particularly persistent and treacherous. They form through the breakdown of plastic into tiny particles that end up in the ocean, air, and soil.
You may not know it but there are already microplastics inside your body. Thanks to the air you are breathing and the clothes you are wearing. Researchers have found that microplastics can be absorbed into the human body through the skin barrier, with 60% of all materials made into clothing being plastic.
Microplastics also enter our body through the food we are eating. “Microplastics also enter your body through the plastic packaging found on almost everything in the grocery store,” says the website, earthday.org. “Almost everything you eat or drink will contain microplastics, but some foods are more contaminated than others.”
If you love eating apples and carrots, take note. Both may have health benefits, but “apples and carrots are the most contaminated fruit and vegetable, respectively, with over 100,000 microplastics per gram,” according to earthday.org.
Fruits and vegetables absorb microplastics through their root system and they enter seeds, leaves, and fruit depending on the microplastic’s size.
Beer drinkers are not spared. There are about 28 microplastic particles per liter of beer – thus it outpaces other drinks such as soda, iced tea, and energy drinks, earthday.org reports.
Earthday.org contends there are 24 trillion pieces of microplastics floating in the ocean. It’s not surprising at all that marine animals often ingest plastic. “When eating an oceanic creature, you’re also eating all the plastics it has consumed,” the website says.
Researchers estimate an average person consumes about 53,864 particles of microplastics annually from seafood. That’s equivalent to 17 credit cards.
In the Philippines, a recent study was done trying to find out if the microplastics found in bangus are dangerous. Fish is a staple food of Filipinos and bangus is the most popular fish eaten by Filipinos.
The researchers 383 extracted particles from 30 bangus that were taken from sampling sites in a selected site in Mindanao. They found 235 of the extracted particles to have microplastics.
“While microplastics themselves may not be inherently toxic, their chemical nature allows them to attract and accumulate other toxic substances on their surfaces. When microplastics with attached toxic substances are ingested, they pose a potential threat to human health,” said Marybeth Hope Banda, member of the research team.
A press release from the Science and Technology Media Service said microplastics have been shown to induce a sense of fullness in fish, potentially reducing their appetite and hindering their ability to consume sufficient nutrients for normal growth.
Dietary exposure to microplastics, however, cannot be estimated. Because particle toxicity data of microplastics are not yet available, an estimation of the potential risks of microplastic particles in food is not yet possible.
“The impact of ingesting microplastics for humans has yet to be determined,” the press release explained. “Its toxicity depends on how much is consumed, though some particles are small enough to penetrate human tissue.”
The study was funded by the Department of Science and Technology-National Research Council of the Philippines (DOST-NRCP). Dr. Rey Y. Capangpangan, who led the study, said the findings indicated the pervasiveness of plastic pollution in the aquatic environment.
“The Filipino people, living in an archipelagic country and relying on its fresh and marine water bodies, are at risk of ingesting microplastic-contaminated aquatic organisms. With this data, we can start to see the extent of microplastic pollution and start its mitigation”, Dr. Capangpangan said.
It is not enough to count microplastics, he added. “There’s a need to have a harmonized protocol about its toxicity threshold level to identify its effect on humans,” he said.
This is why Dr. Capangpangan reaches out to other researchers in the same field to collaborate and craft a standardized protocol regarding microplastics’ effect when ingested by humans.
The 2020 data from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources showed bangus production contributed 17.9% to total fisheries production. The same report said that of an average Filipino household’s annual fish consumption, about 10% of the 36.8 kg is milkfish.
According to past studies, microplastics in fish may cause structural damage to the intestine, liver, gills, and brain, while affecting metabolic balance, behavior, and fertility. The degree of these harmful effects depends on the particle sizes and doses, as well as the exposure parameters.
Earthday.org states: “Researchers have found microplastics damage human cells, decrease reproductive health, and disrupt the endocrine system. Not only that; they also act as a vessel for harmful substances to enter the body as they can absorb chemicals linked to cancers and weakened immune systems.”
During this year’s Earth Day celebrations this coming April 22, organizers want to achieve a 60% reduction in plastics by 2040.