We Are Eating, Drinking & Breathing Microplastics

A new Portland State University study found an average of eleven microplastic pieces in every oyster tested and almost as many particles in clams. This is only one report. While most of our research focuses on the ocean, far more plastic degradation occurs on land. Up to 700,000 plastic microfilaments can be shed from a single load of laundry. A University of Victoria study concluded that the average North American consumes between 39,000 to 52,000 particles a year and that number can go as high as 121,000 “when inhalation is considered.” We are eating, drinking & breathing microplastics.


Microplastic pollution is caused by the disintegration of plastic litter and is found in the air, soil and water across our planet.

eating ,drinking & breathing microplastics
Microplastic particles from polar fleece fabrics agitated in a household washing machine – Courtesy: Monique Raap, University of Victoria.

“At just under five millimetres in diameter, or smaller than the size of a sesame seed, microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that come from the degradation of larger plastic products or the shedding of particles from water bottles, plastic packaging and synthetic clothes. These particles can easily sneak into our bodies undetected through food or when we breathe air containing microplastics,” says Kieran Cox, a marine biology PhD candidate in UVic Biologist Francis Juanes’ lab

The Air We Breath

“Plastic microfibres found in the dust in our homes and the air we breathe can come from car tyres, carpets and soft furnishings, as well as clothes such as fleece jackets. These are regularly shedding tiny bits of plastic into the environment as they are worn away,” adds Julian Kirby, of Friends of the Earth.

We Eat & Drink Plastics Daily

“We’re all using plastics on a daily basis. We are all the source of contamination in our seafood. And microplastics are not just in our seafood. We know that they are in our beer, in our salt, in our drinking water,” says Britta Baechler, a Ph.D. student in Portland State University’s Earth, Environment and Society program

The University of Victoria study suggests more research is needed on microplastic levels in other food groups.

“Human reliance on plastic packaging and food processing methods for major food groups such as meats, fruits and veggies is a growing problem. Our research suggests microplastics will continue to be found in the majority—if not all—of items intended for human consumption. We need to reassess our reliance on synthetic materials and alter how we manage them to change our relationship with plastics,” says Cox.

We are eating microplastics
Locally Baked Bread by Gill King via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

MicroPlastics Coming Through Us

All of the stool samples in a recent study from Austria contained microplastic particles. An average of 20 pieces were found in every 10 grams of excreta.

“This is the first study of its kind and confirms what we have long suspected, that plastics ultimately reach the human gut. Of particular concern is what this means to us, and especially patients with gastrointestinal diseases,” says the study’s lead author, Philipp Schwabl, from a the Medical University of Vienna. 

“ … The smallest microplastic particles are capable of entering the bloodstream, the lymphatic system, and may even reach the liver … Now that we have the first evidence for microplastics inside humans, we need further research to understand what this means for human health.”

Kieran Cox, lead author of a new University of Victoria study that suggests humans are unknowingly consuming tens of thousands of plastic particles per year. Credit: Kieran Cox.

What Can We Do?

Another European study, Environmental And Health Risks Of Microplastic Pollution, suggests immediate steps that can be taken (p 26):

  • “tighter licensing conditions for plastic pellet producers”
  • more “stringent performance standards for washing machines aimed at textile microplastics”
  • “improved drainage-system inceptors for tire abrasion microplastics.”

“I definitely steer away from plastic packaging and try to avoid bottled water as much as possible. Removing single-use plastic from your life and supporting companies that are moving away from plastic packaging is going to have a non-trivial impact. The facts are simple. We are producing a lot of plastic and it is ending up in the ecosystems, which we are a part of,” says Cox.

Top photo credit: Table reserved for Mr. Shimoni by Dennis Wong via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

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