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Americans May Be Ingesting Thousands of Microplastics Every Year (smithsonianmag.com)
131 points by EL_Loco 39 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 85 comments



Do we know much about the impact this has on our bodies?

This is certainly something to be concerned about, but without that context it's hard to know what this really means.

The article says a "microplastic particle" is any peice of plastic smaller than 5mm. That's bigger than some pills - I would definitely notice chewing on something that size.

So how big are these really and what are they doing to me?

For reference, the US and EU both regulate that 10 micrograms per liter of arsenic in drinking water is safe. Using my rusty high school chemistry (please correct me if I'm wrong), this is on the order of ~10^20 particles (atoms) of arsenic per year. That's way way more than 100k and arsenic is more inherently harmful to humans than plastic.

This could easily be genuine epidemic levels of awful, or it could be completely nothing. Does anyone know more?


> The article says a "microplastic particle" is any peice of plastic smaller than 5mm

I double checked the article and you are right, this is why the use of the apothocary symbols are not used in medicine any more it should be "5 and 20 μm polystyrene micro-particles elicited somewhat similar pathological and physiological changes in mice. These, particularly the 5 μm micro-particles, could be detected in histological sections of the gut, liver and kidney." The symbol means micro or an order of a million times smaller than a gram/meter so the particulate size appears misstated and is actually an order of 1000 times smaller than a millimeter.

> This could easily be genuine epidemic levels of awful, or it could be completely nothing. Does anyone know more?

It has been shown microplastic contamination is very significant in plastic-bottled single-use drinking water. Avoiding exposure as much as possible is 100% best medical advice, avoid drinking from single-use plastic bottles whenever possible. An infographic from WHO: https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2018/03/16/study-...

As for health effects microplastics definitely bioaccumulate in the gut, liver and kidneys in mice. Mice are not human but as this is a basic physiology issue it is very highly likely that they also bioaccumulate in humans. It is not clear whether humans or mice can ever clear these particles, it is likely they can damage these organs over time, they do cause biomarker and endocrine changes short term. This can indicate damage, possible scaring and a propensity to weight gain respectively. Also other unknown fun stuff. It is probably dose-dependent so if you avoid single use plastic bottled water thats key. The food supply issue (seafood) is less significant from a human health standpoint.

Second source:https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fenvs.2017.0006...


Microplastics were found in bottled water, but I see no evidence that they actually came from the bottles, and I can't think of any mechanism that could cause particles to break off from the insides of the bottle under normal storage conditions. It seems more likely that they were already present in the water when the bottles were filled.


It's likely a result of the manufacturing process, at least partially. I found the journal article the WHO pulled data from. Heres the abstract (I italicized for emphasis):

Eleven globally sourced brands of bottled water, purchased in 19 locations in nine different countries, were tested for microplastic contamination using Nile Red tagging. Of the 259 total bottles processed, 93% showed some sign of microplastic contamination. After accounting for possible background (lab) contamination, an average of 10.4 microplastic particles >100 um in size per liter of bottled water processed were found. Fragments were the most common morphology (66%) followed by fibers. Half of these particles were confirmed to be polymeric in nature using FTIR spectroscopy with polypropylene being the most common polymer type (54%), which matches a common plastic used for the manufacture of bottle caps. A small fraction of particles (4%) showed the presence of industrial lubricants. While spectroscopic analysis of particles smaller than 100 um was not possible, the adsorption of the Nile Red dye indicates that these particles are most probably plastic. Including these smaller particles (6.5–100 um), an average of 325 microplastic particles per liter of bottled water was found. Microplastic contamination range of 0 to over 10,000 microplastic particles per liter with 95% of particles being between 6.5 and 100 um in size. Data suggests the contamination is at least partially coming from the packaging and/or the bottling process itself. Given the prevalence of the consumption of bottled water across the globe, the results of this study support the need for further studies on the impacts of micro- and nano- plastics on human health.

URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6141690/


That should be not so hard to check - some companies bottle water both in plastic and glass, levels can be compared. Others use specific sorts of plastics, so one could check if the particles in their water match the chemical composition of bottle plastic or contain other plastics that are not part of the bottle. Also, many companies supply water coolers which use big bottles made of different kind of plastics than retail water - but likely the water itself, from the same company, comes from the same manufacturing process. The profile of these can be compared and one can see if the bottles are the likely source.


> Mice are not human but as this is a basic physiology issue it is very highly likely that they also bioaccumulate in humans

That would be rather easy to check - take a bunch of dead humans who likely consumed a lot of bottled water (i.e. pretty much any urban dweller) and check them for microplastics in certain organs. Has this kind of research already been done and if not, why not?

Also, "piece smaller than 5mm" can be a huge 4mm chunk of plastic or one molecule. Depending on that, the average of 325 particles per liter could be enormous or completely insignificant.


Right? If you could just do a national sampling as part of routine autopsies or something it would give so much valuable data. Sadly there is a lot of politics and money even in scientific research now. I would really value this data, I don't know who would fund it though if not the government, likely not Nestle or a corporation with great sales of bottled water. Also please see my reply earlier in thread Smithsonian article shakes head in sadness said mm for particulate size when it should be 1000x smaller.


The problem with this is that it could take decades to become dangerous. Maybe accumulation is a factor. Maybe interaction with other things is.

It's hard to assess, and I'd find it saner to assume ingesting regularly inorganic synthetic materials our body did't evolve with to be risky and take measure before we know for sure.

Even if it's just because of intertia: it took almost a century between knowing that asbestos was dangerous and ban. So let's not wait.


>So how big are these really and what are they doing to me?

According to the paper, a) they're mostly microscopic pieces of lint from synthetic textiles and b) we don't know. Given the amount of research that has looked for health harms related to plastics exposure, I operate on the assumption that if it was a big deal, we would have found something by now.

https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.9b01517


and b) we don't know

If the claims of consumption are true, then people have been ingesting plastics for a long time and there have been no observed ill effects attributable to it, and I'd say it's more like "we have plenty of evidence that it's not really harmful" than "we don't know" --- but of course, the latter makes for more sensational reporting and fearmongering...

This somewhat reminds me of the paranoia surrounding radio waves and non-ionising radiation --- surely there would be some obviously noticeable negative effects by now, after well over a century of use, but the evidence strongly says that beyond known effects like heating, there's nothing else to worry about.

It's like those articles that claim (and likely are true) that people ingest X insects/spiders/other-disgusting-thing every year; it's sensational, but not really something to worry about (personally, I'd rather ingest the plastic...)

I've noticed there's a bit of an anti-plastic movement going on lately, with plenty of FUD articles like this being spread (not just on HN, but elsewhere), and I wonder if there's an ulterior motive...


I just have to downvote this mentality....

For example men's spermcounts have been going down steadily and predictably for over 30 years, and are now HALF what they were 30 years ago. Scientists have done thousands of studies and haven't identified a root cause. (I bring this up because many plastics are made flexible with a xenoestrogen named BPA)

We can't say "Plastics must be fine," we have no control group to compare against. For all you know the increases in allergies, nearsightedness, autoimmune disorders, or reduced sperm count are related.

---

Remember when leaded gasoline reduced a whole generation's IQ by a few points and caused a crimewave? Sometimes the negative effects of an enviromental choice take decades to figure out.

It's past time to switch into a "cautious until proven safe" way of thinking when it comes to health and environment.


BPA is not used to make plastics more flexible. It is commonly used in all sorts of places though.

Phthalates are commonly used to make plastics more flexible. They are also estrogenic.

Parabens, PCBs, and pesticides are all other common entrants into the body with estrogenic effects.

( Reduced sperm count and sperm quality)


Do you have sources?



The Guardian is an online news site (with all the sensationalism that entails), not a serious scientific publication.


The first article I linked to has links to the scientific sources.


Most likely candidate for increase in nearsightedness is decreased exposure to sunlight:

https://www.nature.com/news/the-myopia-boom-1.17120


Scientists have done thousands of studies and haven't identified a root cause.

Then there likely isn't one, beyond maybe natural evolution itself.

Remember when leaded gasoline reduced a whole generation's IQ by a few points and caused a crimewave? Sometimes the negative effects of an enviromental choice take decades to figure out.

That was actually a very noticeable effect that plenty of studies showed evidence of, unlike this one.

It's past time to switch into a "cautious until proven safe" way of thinking when it comes to health and environment.

We'd still be living like cavemen if that were the case.


Just because we can't measure an effect, it doesn't mean that one doesn't exist. This seems like a really unscientific thing to say. But remember that the world is not a lab where you can exactly control conditions. There is no control group, and the null hypothesis cannot be proven. But we still have to deal with that complex world and make choices.

To believe that a novel substance is benign until proven otherwise is just a form of bias. There is no objective reason why a substance should be innocent until proven guilty. We just have to adopt that policy out of practicality!


I couldn't access the article because paywall, however 'a)... synthetic textiles' would make more sense for inhalation vs ingestion. Also American Chemical Society may be biased, despite the lovable name https://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/American_Chemical_Soci...


I always wonder more about the airborne stuff. Blankets, carpets, clothing, furniture. In a sun beam you can see all the little fibers floating around. I bet I inhale and swallow way more plastic every year than I eat, but I never see it mentioned.


Well for one, a microplastic particle is certainly much bigger than an atom.


If you like, we could divide all our arsenic atoms into 'microparticles' that each contain: ~100000000000000 atoms. At that point your arsenic particle and plastic particle intake would be the same.

My whole point is that we are dealing with crazy big and crazy small numbers. Without more context they are all meaningless.


I'd be happy to buy virtually all my packaged food in recyclable glass containers. I buy milk in bottles and return them for a refund and it's easy enough.

Amazon could make this move happen pretty quickly with amazon.com and Whole Foods. I'm sure there would be difficulties involved but they don't seem insurmountable.


A service called Loop[1] is currently being trialed that delivers goods using all reusable (not just recyclable) packaging. The service also picks up the used packaging. It is a collaboration between Walgreens and Kroger.

1. https://loopstore.com/


The article points out that you're also getting the microplastics from the food you're eating and from just drinking tap water. Microplastics from your own packaging isn't included in the 120k total.


Which means the problem is likely worse.


You can get water in aluminum cans. Pretty common when flying on a plane for example.


Aluminium cans are coated on the inside with plastic.

Edit: here is a video showing what the lining looks like.

https://youtu.be/EagzNomxTYg


>shipping glass ... “difficulties”

Yeah I’m sure they’d lose a ton of money. Glass is heavy and expensive plus the added liability of it breaking and a consumer reaching their hand inside.


"plus the added liability of it breaking and a consumer reaching their hand inside."

Do people just make this stuff as up as a concern? There are plenty of areas where this is done without problems.


Drop a glass container and it's almost certainly going to shatter, contaminating whatever product it was carrying with dangerously tiny shards of glass.

Drop a plastic container and it's going to dent or rupture at most, and the product it contains will likely still be recoverable.


Pickles come in glass jars. so does salsa. So does some types of juice.

I'm not sure why you are concerned about this because it is obviously not a big problem.


It is a problem, especially in transportation and distribution of products. It costs more for glass. It's heavier, there's more loss from breakage, etc. There's a reason society went from using glass for every container to plastic. Plastics are convenient, resilient to drops, lightweight, flexible, and easier to form in various shapes.


> "There's a reason society went from using glass for every container to plastic."

We didn't though. Glass is still the standard packaging for a wide range of products.


Relatively few. Have you walked into a supermarket since 1952?


I have. There are a ton glass packages in my fridge and pantry right now that came from grocery stores. Maybe keep your eyes peeled next time you go to the store and look for yourself.

Mustard, olives, oil, beer!, pickles, apple sauce, cocktail sauce, salsa, spaghetti sauce, mayonnaise, anchovies, archichoke hearts, various ground spices, balsamic vinegar salad dressing, and much much more. That's just a small sampling of the glass packaged foods I've bought from the grocery store in 2019.

If glass is such a logistics nightmare, then why is the pickle industry still using it? Because it actually not a logistics nightmare. It weights a bit more, and it's a bit more fragile, but neither are a serious enough factor to actually remove glass containers from the market. Beer you might say is a high margin item, except there are a lot of really cheap beers that come in glass. My six-pack of coors light is not exactly a $20 bespoke hyper-IPA west coast microbrew, you know what I mean? It's in the same price (and class) range as a six-pack of Al-canned rolling rock. Also my glass jar of pickles were the dirt cheap generic brand pickles.


We all know the drawbacks of putting viscous fluids like ketchup in glass. Yes it's possible. Most salad dressings, sauces, sodas and juices, etc are served in plastic containers.

Plastic is more moldable than glass. It can be shrunk fitted to the object it contains, such as sliced cheese, sliced turkey, etc. It can be molded into odd shapes like a 6 pack of Apple sauce that is easily packed with a kid's lunch bag (and a parent need not worry about damage to the containers in transit).

Tons of benefits to using plastic. Glass is used with beer because glass is a worse insulator than plastic, so the container is as cold as the liquid inside. That's why consumers prefer it for beverages.


The point is that we already deal with glass through the entire process of production, distribution, use, and disposal and it is not a problem.

Plastic is of course cheaper (ignoring externalities) and of course has advantageous qualities. That's why we use plastic. It is a good material.

But we can deal with glass if we decide the true cost of plastic is too high, even if the glass breaks.


>Glass is heavy and expensive plus the added liability of it breaking and a consumer reaching their hand inside.

Plastic edges can cut you to the bone pretty easily. Clamshell package victims attest to this year after year.

Can't I just go choke on a plastic bottle somewhere and swing the legal preference back the other way, if that's truly the issue?

I agree with you on the weight aspect though. It'd be difficult to get goods producers to reduce their profits altruistically.


Imagine glass clamshell packaging, if you think plastic cuts are bad. It's also not about reducing profits or not. Consumer goods operate on very thin margins. Anything you do to increase packaging and distribution costs will be passed on in the price of the goods.


We have milk delivered in glass bottles on our doorstep each morning. No difficulties.


They still do this in some cities?


They do it in Boston, I'm sure most other major cities have access to glass bottle milk delivery as well.

If I recall correctly, it's $2.50 extra per bottle for the glass but you get $2.00 back if you return it on the next delivery.


What company/service are you using in Boston?


We're in the UK. It's available in most towns.


Lots of things come in glass already and it doesn't really seem to be a big deal. Spaghetti sauce, pickles, etc. Nobody thinks twice about any of that.


This. For some reason it’s only the water and softdrink manufacturers who have this hardon for plastic containers. Everyone else is happily putting all sorts of condiments and liquids in glassware.


You'd only need to use glass for the last mile of the process for many items. Ship the bulk items in big metal containers and then switch to bottling at the stores.


They could pilot it and charge a little extra.


But you’re still packing it cardboard and air filled plastic bags. It’s fragile has to be handled differently. Which means it’s more of a risk. Think of the robot that pierced the bear mace in a factory.


Hey, I'm not saying it'd be easy. When I lived in the middle East the cola truck would deliver to residences and take away the empties each week.


Many time release drugs use plastics to accomplish it. Polymethacrilic acid is a very common plastic used.

Regarded as safe since the plastic just gets excreted in the feces.


Somewhat unrelated, but I really wish we could find a way to not be so reliant on plastics.

I try to shop at local farmers markets (I'm willing to pay a small premium for knowing exactly where my food is coming from), and even in those cases the guy behind the table reflexively reaches for a plastic bag nearly every time. I always bring my own canvas bags or a backpack, but this has become so culturally ingrained in this country. Is it like this in Europe? I used to poo poo attempts at restricting the use of straws and plastic single-use containers, but now I'm warming up to the idea of outright dropping the ban hammer. These things are gross and they end up in the gutters, and make cities look dirty and poorly managed. We survived without them for a long time. We should figure out a way to do so again.


> I really wish we could find a way to not be so reliant on plastics.

Aluminum and glass. We have ways, we only need the political will to mandate their uses and discontinue plastics over a short period of say 10-20 years.


Except, there's a special circle of hell for people that knowingly break glass bottles out "in the wild", and I wouldn't want to fill their hands with greater temptation, lest their ignorant souls be damned for eternity.


Aluminium cans have a thin plastic layer inside.


Glass is heavy as shit and makes transportation require more energy.


Yet glass bottles are used everywhere from beer, wine, jellies, jams, etc. etc. Transportation cost is not much of a real issue.


The other problem is there is practically no incentive for any company to recycle broken glass. It's heavy, sharp, and there's little demand for it.

It takes much more fuel to transport glass containers and once broken it isn't recycled. Although glass is inert so in a landfill it isn't a problem I guess that's an benefit.


I disagree. Shipping for beer can be up to 20% of the cost depending on where it is coming from. One of the main reasons for the increase in cans for American craft brewers is that the freight savings (both in and out of the brewery) increases profits in a significant manor.


More due to tradition than anything else.


We survived without them for a long time.

We also survived for a very long time without refrigerated food, running water, sewer systems, electricity, computers, or sterile medical procedures.

Personally, I feel sad about the plastic waste too, but more because it's a waste of a perfectly good material with some very desirable properties. Definitely against a ban, but definitely for more reuse and recycling.


Right, because using a canvas bag instead of a plastic one is just like going without running water.


I think his point is just because we got along without it is not a good reason to abandon something. But yeah, too much waste all around, including plastics


I agree completely, we could easily get rid of 95% of all plastics and barely cause anyone any inconvenience.


From a sanitary perspective, yes.

Plastic bags are naturally waterproof, have a high strength-to-weight ratio, and don't easily let bacteria grow. If made sturdy enough, like they used to be, they can even be easily cleaned and reused, because dirt does not soak into them.

Edit: it's amusing how voracious the anti-plastic brigade is here...


I don't think plastics themselves are terrible. Single-use plastics and disposable plastics are more the issue.

You can reuse a plastic tupperware container many times. I've had the same plastic water bottle for 10+ years.

At the same time you can still litter aluminum cans and smash glass bottles on the street.

Getting too focused on the material is not helpful IMO. Societally, we need to shift from disposability and overconsumption.

Buy less things. Make them last.


Sadly, sellers have realized said small premium can extracted from buyers without actually producing food locally https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/farmers-markets-lies-market...


Sooner or later it is likely that microbes which can digest plastics but are currently extremely rare, will multiply, become common and evolve since we are making plastic pollution increasingly common throughout soils and seas.

What will be the timescale and effect of a new category of microbes on earthly micro-flora? In soils, in foodchains and within our own guts ? This uncertainty presents an unpredictable biohazard. An intelligent population having noticed its accidental emissions would try to limit and reduce them in scale for its own and future generations biological security.


Plastics are not so abundant in the oceans or soils to support some kind of biological takeover, assuming such microbes could evolve. This is sensationalist speculation. https://vinylverified.com/blog/2019/5/17/vinyl-verified-resp...


This article doesn’t provide evidence for your claim that plastics are not so abundant in the oceans, it only points out that a specific study that relied on a false premise (that PVC is a high percentage or is well-represented in ocean plastics) is flawed. It makes almost no mention of the abundance of actual ocean plastics.

Did you link the wrong article or something?


You're the one with the extraordinary claim so you should be providing extraordinary evidence.


The term is

https://duckduckgo.com/?q=endocrine+disruptor

Why don't you think about the implications of the stuff not only everywhere in the environment, but as small (almost nano?) particles whith large surface, releasing their shiny sparkles/oily smears/pick your poison into your innards.

It's got electrolytez!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Vw2CrY9Igs


> Measuring less than five millimeters in length, microplastics derive from a variety of sources

wow, that is big... they can be almost 2/10 of an inch (I think I would choke on that)


The waste we dump will eventually end up in our bodies. Earth is a closed-loop, and we are on top of the food chain.


We watched this doc on Netflix the other day. It’s a combination of sad and disgusting.

https://www.netflix.com/title/80164032


For everyone talking about the benefits of glass bottles, they have their own dangers.

This study from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia showed that broken glass bottles accounted for 15% of all lacerations in children (the largest single cause) and broken glass bottles most frequently inflicted injuries resulting in functional impairment or hospitalization

https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abst...

There may be a possible danger from plastic bottles over the long term, but widespread glass bottle adoptions is going to result in a lot of lacerated kids.


Not to mention that glass also has harmful chemicals that leach into the contents of the glass containers. Same goes for metal.


Do you have any links on the chemicals you're referring to and their danger?


That's very hard to believe; glass is pretty inert.


You may be thinking of crystal, which was used in older decanters and the alcohol inside assisted in the process of lead contamination.


So? To quote the results of the paper, "the effects of consuming MPs on human health are largely unknown".

I'm just not concerned about ingesting tiny quantities of something that might possibly be harmful, even though we've been looking really hard for harms for quite a long time and haven't found anything of note. My environment is full of stuff that we know to be definitely harmful - could we fix that please, before we start worrying about stuff that might possibly be harmful?


It's good to know that modern practices are having wide reaching contamination. The sources of ingestion may not be from where you expected and may indicate that other more harmful things are being ingested as well.


Nothing wrong with trying to fix both. Often, the obstacles to most problem solutions are political and economic, not technological or scientific. It's feasible to work on many problems if the political will is there. Doesn't have to be a mutually exclusive choice scenario.




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