Are Microplastics Hidden in the Food You Eat

Are Microplastics Hidden in the Food You Eat

Are microplastics hidden in the food you eat? Enjoying a delicious meal is one of life’s greatest pleasures, however, you could be eating more than you bargained for.

Plastic Unfantastic

According to a recent study by the University of Newcastle in Australia, we could be ingesting as much as five grams of plastic a week along with our food and drink. The researchers reviewed 52 studies – including 33 on plastic consumption through food and beverage – to arrive at their estimation. 

The study highlights a growing concern in recent years. Improperly disposed plastic waste degrades into extremely small pieces, some of which can only be seen through a microscope. These microplastics end up contaminating our sources of food and water. 

How Much Plastic is in Our Food?

Microplastics – plastic particles that are less than 5 millimetres in length – have been found in a variety of commonly eaten food like salt, fish, shellfish and chicken. 

The amount of microplastics in our food and drink varies. Researchers in Mexico found that chicken gizzards from backyard-raised hens had an average of 10 microplastics inside them. Enough to give you pause for thought when consuming an everyday meal. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, researchers in Belgium at the Ghent University Laboratory of Environmental Toxicology and Aquatic Ecology estimated that European seafood aficionados could be consuming up to 11,000 microplastics a year from shellfish alone. 

Closer to home, in September of this year researchers from Marine National Park Operation Centre in Thailand’s Trang Province analysed the mackerel catches of coastal fishermen. They reported finding an average of 78 pieces of microplastics inside each fish.

And it’s not just our food that is being contaminated. These miniscule bits of non-biodegradable plastic have also made their way into our tap water, bottled water and even beer. 

A study by scientists from the University of Victoria, Canada, estimated that an American ingests 4,000 microplastics a year from drinking only tap water, while people who only drink bottled water could be exposed to a staggering 90,000 microplastics a year. 

Good news for those who enjoy a cold one every now and then though. Beer was reported to contain a comparatively small four microplastics per litre, according to a 2018 paper published in a Public Library of Science journal.

On the other hand, there is some bad news for tea lovers. Researchers from McGill University, Canada, found that plastic tea bags release billions of microplastics into every cup. Given that even regular tea bags contain a varying amount of plastic based on the brand, it might be time to switch back to making that cuppa the old fashioned way with loose tea leaves.

As you can see, the more research that goes into examining how much microplastics are hiding in our food, the more we seem to find.

So What Are The Dangers?

Currently we don’t actually know how dangerous or safe these microplastics are to us, and therein lies the problem. The possible dangers of consuming microplastics could be very serious. 

For example, microplastics researcher Kieran Cox says they could act as a vehicle for other toxins to enter our body: ‘Microplastics are hydrophobic and that means other toxins like a hydrocarbon or a DDT or other pollutants can grab onto these plastics and if we’re consuming them, it’s not good news.’

There is also concern about the harmful chemicals used in plastic production such as Bisphenol A and phthalates which are known endocrine disrupting chemicals or EDCs. EDCs disrupt hormones that regulate development, reproduction, growth, metabolism and other functions in both animals and humans. 

In his talk on EDCs at the Circular Economy 100 summit in 2016, founder and chief scientist of the nonprofit Environmental Health Sciences, adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, Dr. Pete Myers, showed that microplastics are being eaten by fish larvae and daphnia – a type of plankton – organisms which sit at the base of the food chain.

In his talk on EDCs at the Circular Economy 100 summit in 2016, founder and chief scientist of the nonprofit Environmental Health Sciences, adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, Dr. Pete Myers, showed that microplastics are being eaten by fish larvae and daphnia – a type of plankton – organisms which sit at the base of the food chain

Dr. Myers said, ‘This process of allowing plastics into the ocean, allowing them to fragment, or putting them in as very small pieces to begin with, like microbeads, is contaminating our entire food chain.’ A food chain that Dr. Myers says, ‘leads up to us, ultimately.’

Given the possible risks and without any concrete answers, perhaps it’s best we err on the side of caution and try to minimise our exposure to microplastics. After all, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

On a global scale, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said recently that momentum is building globally for the creation of an international legally binding treaty specifically focused on combating marine plastic pollution. You can add your voice to the call for a truly global solution to this global problem by signing WWF’s online petition here.  

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