It seems like microplastics are everywhere these days. These tiny plastics are in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink.

And they’re in our bodies too, with recent research finding microplastics in our arteries.

“The rate of increase in microplastics in the environment is exponential and we have every reason to believe that the concentrations in our bodies will continue to increase in the coming years and decades,” says Matthew Campen, PhD, a professor at the University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy in Albuquerque, who has researched microplastics.

While there’s a growing body of evidence linking microplastics to a wide range of health issues, there’s not much definitive proof yet that these particles directly cause specific medical issues, Dr. Campen notes.

“What scientists worry about is several trends in disease prevalence that have been unexplained – Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, colorectal cancer in people under 50, inflammatory bowel disease, and global reductions in sperm count,” says Campen.

These are just some of the health problems that have been linked to microplastics in recent years.

The most convincing evidence yet of the threat microplastics may pose to human health has just been published in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), Campen says.

Scientists found microplastics and nanoplastics – even tinier particles – inside arteries associated with a more than quadrupled risk of events like heart attacks, strokes, and premature death.

Even though the study didn’t prove that microplastics directly cause heart problems, “The recent report in NEJM raises serious alarms,” Campen says.

What Are Microplastics and Where Do They Come From?

Microplastics and nanoplastics are far too tiny to detect as you go about your daily life. Microplastics are less than 5 micrometres in size – thousands of times smaller than a grain of rice – and nanoplastics are below 1 micrometre.

These tiny particles can turn up in a lot of places you might not expect. They’re in water bottles and other plastic containers (which might seem obvious) but also in makeup, personal care items and grooming products, clothing and textiles, and many foods and drinks, says Martha Gulati, MD, director of preventive cardiology at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.

“There is an enormous amount of degraded plastic pollution contaminating our planet Earth and we are inhaling and ingesting microplastics and nanoplastics every day and everywhere,” Dr. Gulati says.

“They have been found even in remote areas like the Antarctic and Arctic, Mount Everest, and the ocean floor.”

It’s easy for people to inhale or ingest microplastics because of their size and their ubiquity, and these plastic bits can accumulate over time.



What Health Issues Are Linked to Microplastics?

In lab experiments, microplastics clearly damage human cells, Gulati says. But what’s less clear is whether they might directly contribute to specific health problems.

“The problem with the study of the specific toxicity of microplastics is that they are composed of different chemicals, many with different potential health effects,” says says Luz Claudio, PhD, a professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

One of the main health concerns about microplastics is their potential to be what’s known as endocrine disruptors – chemicals that interfere with the normal functioning of the body’s hormone system, Dr. Claudio says. “Many well-documented studies on laboratory animals point in this direction,” Claudio notes.

As our exposure to microplastics continues to rise, and these tiny particles keep accumulating inside our bodies, scientists are concerned about what health issues may result, Claudio says. “No one really knows the answer to this, but this lack of conclusive knowledge does not mean that the effects are not important,” Claudio adds.

Can You Avoid Microplastics or Get Rid of Them Once They’re in Your Body?

Even if the exact health risks aren’t clear, there are certainly no benefits to microplastics building up over time inside the body. And even if you can’t completely avoid exposure, there are things you can do to limit it, says Jessica Goddard, PhD, chief science officer at Tap Score and SimpleLab, a water testing start-up in Berkeley, California.

“We can absolutely limit our exposure to microplastics and we can reduce our contribution to the broader microplastics pollution problem,” Dr. Goddard says.

For example, you can limit exposure to microplastics in drinking water by using a home filtration system for tap water and by avoiding disposable plastic bottles.

When it comes to breathing microplastics, you can take steps to limit indoor air pollution that contains particles shed by carpets and furniture items made from plastic fibre.

“We’re surrounded by plastic products, so I try to think about what purchases will give me the greatest risk reduction,” Goddard says. “This may be different for everyone. High impact things for example, are things I’ll use over and over again, and mitigating the greatest risk means thinking about the amount of exposure and the susceptibility and vulnerability of the exposed.”

In Goddard’s case, she chooses to use glass bottles instead of plastic ones for her baby. “Babies are particularly vulnerable and so are usually at greater risk from exposures,” Goddard says. “Baby bottles are used over and over, and are also heated regularly, so making the no plastic-alternative choice has a great impact.”

The choices might look different for another person or family. For some it might mean seeking out clothing and home textiles made from natural fibre, for others it could involve not using plastic food containers.

Being aware of how and what you purchase is important because there’s no way to remove microplastics from your body once they have been absorbed.

“You cannot detox,” Goddard says.

SOURCE: Everyday Health