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Microplastics and Human Health: Should we be Worried?

Microplastics and Human Health: Should we be Worried?


The advent of plastic pollution is a huge growing global concern, with experts having said that microplastics are one of the greatest manmade disasters of modern times. They are literally found everywhere, whether in the water we drink and food we eat to even the most remote locations uninhabited by humans. Here nutritionist Rebecca Stevens takes us through exactly what microplastics are and the threat they pose to human health.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are small plastic particles (less than 5mm in size) that enter the environment and water in a variety of ways. Research from The University of Newcastle in Australia found that the average person consumes about 5g of plastic every week from water. Although the effects on human health remain unclear, scientists say that it’s unlikely to be good news.

Despite microplastics posing a threat to the environment and human health, a new study from Brunel University has found that people are still largely unfamiliar with microplastics and find it difficult to make the link between their own plastic usage and the microplastics which end up in the ocean.

How do we consume microplastics?

Microplastics can enter our bodies through ingestion, inhalation and skin contact. Ingestion is mainly due to microplastics entering our water systems from surface run-off, wastewater, pollution, and plastic water bottles. Once microplastics enter our water systems, where they remain and end up in our drinking water.

You may be surprised to learn that eating fish (especially shellfish), salt, and beer are other leading sources of microplastic ingestion. Our oceans are heavily polluted with microplastics, and this, unfortunately, ends up in many species intended for human consumption including invertebrates, crustaceans, and fish. The microplastic particles are concentrated in the digestive organs of small fish, and when we eat seafood, we usually eat their entire body, meaning we consume their plastic-polluted organs.

Microplastics have also been found in canned fish, meaning the microplastics can probably travel from their digestive organs to their flesh (but more research is needed to confirm). We have to balance this with the nutritional benefits of eating fish (especially oily fish). So avoiding lots of tinned fish and sticking to the recommended one to four portions (portion = 140g) of oily fish per week seems sensible.

Are they bad for us?

Scientists suspect microplastics pose a bigger risk to health than previously thought. Long-term effects are not clear, but studies are underway. Animal and in vitro studies have suggested there may be negative effects on inflammation, immunity, and the gut microbiome.

Professor Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London and author of The Diet Myth says “we know virtually nothing about the potential risks of humans accumulating plastic in our intestines and how the gut microbes will respond to these synthetic chemicals, but it’s unlikely to be good news.”

As the diversity of our gut microbiome is linked with our immune health this may have an impact on our overall health. Another consideration is that microplastic particles are also able to stick to other harmful chemicals and pollutants which may also have adverse effects on human health. However, we need more research before we can fully understand the long-term effects on humans.

Do we need to worry?

Until we have more long-term research, it’s difficult for health organisations to provide guidance on this topic. In 2019, the World Health Organization published a report which concluded that microplastic particles in drinking water are not harmful to human health at current levels. The report acknowledged that the advice was based on limited evidence and urgently called for more research and a reduction in plastic use globally. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) also say that current levels are “unlikely to cause harm.”

How can we consume fewer microplastics?

We mentioned earlier that drinking water is a leading source of microplastic ingestion. However, the solution isn’t to switch to bottled water as another study found it contains 22 times more microplastic particles than tap water and they’re found in 93% of bottled water brands. Those drinking bottled water are, on average, ingesting 90,000 additional plastic particles to those drinking tap water each year.

Microplastics in tap water
Microplastics in tap water

Remember that, for now, it’s safe to stick with drinking tap and bottled water as the level of microplastics found in the water is considered safe for human consumption. The type of water you drink is down to individual preference. Tap water is the cheapest option and it’s better for the environment and contains fewer microplastics. You could use a ceramic water filter that removes microplastic particles from your drinking water. Specific ceramic water filters will retain naturally occurring minerals within the water that other water filters can remove. Removing these naturally occurring minerals can lead to over purification of your tap, meaning you miss out on these all-important nutrients.

Products are available that you can add to your kitchen tap or work surface or you can use a ceramic water filter bottle for when you’re out and about. Drinking canned water is another option but at present, there are no studies comparing its microplastic content to bottled and tap water.

You could also support a ban on microplastic-containing products such as clothes, cleaning materials, and cosmetic products. By reducing our plastic use (especially single-use plastic) we will collectively reduce the amount that enters our environment and oceans.

Take home message:

The current levels of consultation are considered to be safe for human health. However, scientists think that microplastics pose a bigger risk to our health than previously thought and have called for more research. We need to balance the concerns about microplastics with the nutritional benefits of staying hydrated with water and eating fish.

We should all aim to drink at least two litres of fluids per day, but whether you choose tap, bottled, or filtered water is down to personal preference. It’s a good idea to get into the habit of carrying a refillable water bottle when you’re out and about to reduce single-use plastic. When it comes to fish, try to be mindful of your seafood and tinned fish consumption and stick to the recommended one to four portions of oily fish per week. As for drinking beer and having a pinch of salt with your meals – it’s all about moderation!

Article by Rebecca Stevens, registered nutritionist and founder of Nourish and Nurture Nutrition

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