A new study of microplastic pollution in the home has revealed that we may be breathing in up to 7000 microplastic particles a day, 100 times the amount the researchers predicted.
Experts say microplastic pollution now has the potential to be a health threat that ranks alongside, or is worse than, asbestos and tobacco.
The research was commissioned for the British television program Good Morning Britain, and aired on an exclusive special this morning.
The microplastic menace: it just gets worse and worse
Here at Herculean Strength we’ve been reporting regularly on the microplastic menace over the last year. Just a few weeks ago, we reported that babies appear to be riddled with microplastics, having up to 15 times adult levels in their bodies.
The researchers behind that shocking study think that the way babies are consuming such high levels of microplastics is through chew-toys like dummies and from crawling around on carpets that contain microplastics.
Domestic contamination, rather than broader environmental contamination, is also the focus of new research for the ITV program Good Morning Britain, and it makes for uncomfortable reading (and viewing).
Dr Fay Couceiro, from Portsmouth University, carried out the research at the home of Good Morning Britain reporter Michelle Morrison in London, on October 12. The researcher used highly sensitive equipment to count tiny particles less than 10 microns in size (about a tenth of the width of a human hair), and focused on microplastic inhalation.
The researchers estimated the family were likely to each breathe in between 2,000 and 7,000 microplastics a day.
The highest concentration was in the room of an eight-year-old girl because her bedding, carpet and soft toys were all made from synthetic materials. Mrs Morrison discovered that three quarters of her own wardrobe contained plastics such as polyester and nylon.
Dr Couceiro also took samples from the kitchen and another bedroom.
She said: ‘I am astonished by the breathable levels of microplastics in each of our homes and more work on this absolutely must be done.’
She added that the quantities she recorded were probably an underestimate, because they covered only 14 hours and not a whole day.
Previous studies have found microplastic particles lodged in all parts of the body, including the brain, gut, and the womb.
Canadian research published in 2019 suggested we eat and breathe in between 74,000 and 121,000 a year, and those who drink bottled water take in an extra 90,000.
However indoor plastic air pollution has received relatively little attention.
Professor Anoop Chauhan, a respiratory specialist with Portsmouth Hospitals Trust, said: ‘There are no health benefits to inhaling anything you don’t need.
‘Things in an occupational setting – asbestos, coal or cigarette smoke or anything you inhale – has dangers and microplastics are a hidden danger in people’s homes.
‘And this is the first study that highlights the level of these that we breathe in everyday life.’
He added: ‘To date, the bulk of research has centred around pollutants outside of the home such as car emissions, but as this initiative proves, it’s essential we widen our focus on the dangers in our homes.’
The impact on marine ecosystems has been one of the most consistent focuses of research into microplastics, with some alarming findings, but the potential impact on humans should be just as worrying. Microplastics are known to be vectors for hormone-disrupting chemicals (see below) and to disrupt natural processes including cell formation.
A new study has shown, for instance, that microplastics can alter the shape of human lung cells and affect their functioning.
As a press release for the research notes: “After only a few days, the scientist began to observe some strange changes take pace, finding that the plastic particles caused the cells’ metabolism to slow down and hampered their proliferation and growth.”
The microplastics didn’t kill the lung cells, but they did alter their function and integrity in ways that are seriously worrying and suggest that people with lung conditions could be at elevated risk of harm from these microscopic pieces of plastic.
In truth, though, it will be a long time before we fully understand the effects of microplastic pollution on humans.
In response to the findings of the shocking television exposé, Mrs Morrison said: ‘Like most families in the UK, I like to think we are doing our bit at home to reduce the use of plastics in our everyday lives so I was intrigued to take part in this world-first experiment.
‘I never dreamed the result would be that my young children and I are breathing in up to 7,000 microplastics each day. I really hope this research can help shine a light on such an important topic.’
Tory MP Alberto Costa, who is chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on microplastics, said: ‘I am shocked to read of the University of Portsmouth’s findings that large quantities of airborne microplastics are present in our homes.
‘Important research such as this must be carried out so we can better understand the potential harms microplastics can have not only to the environment but to human health.
We have been looking at the effects microfibre plastics can have, which are shed from textiles during laundry, on our rivers and seas.
‘I am urging the Government to consider bringing forward legislation to ensure all new washing machines are fitted with microfibre catching filters and will be raising this in the House of Commons.’
Microplastics and xenoestrogen pollution: a potential threat to the future of the species?
It’s already well known that microplastics are carriers of toxic xenoestrogens, industrial chemicals that have disastrous gender-bending effects. These chemicals are believed to be one of the principal causes of a calamitous decline in fertility that could bring about the end of human reproduction as we know it.
By 2045, according to Professor Shanna Swan, the majority of men may no longer be able to reproduce because of the effects of harmful chemicals from a variety of common household sources.
“We’re about 40 years behind global warming, in terms of awareness,” she says – yet the threat to human survival is just as great as, if not greater than, our concerns about greenhouse gas emissions.
According to Swan’s projections from the available data, by 2045 the sperm count of the median man will reach zero – meaning that one half of all men will have no sperm at all, and the other half will have an amount that is barely more than zero. Functionally, all men will be infertile.
The implications should be obvious: no sperm, no babies. Such a scenario has already been dubbed ‘Spermageddon’.
But it’s not just xenoestrogens that are responsible for the precipitous decline in male fertility we’re witnessing. Swan also points to a variety of other factors that seem to be at work, including the use of contraceptives, obesity, smoking and ‘cultural shifts’, a rather vague term which would have deserved further explanation.
Could it be that as men behave – or are given less room to behave – in less stereotypically manly ways, they may actually become so? There may be other biological factors at work too, she suggests, pointing to the collapse in testosterone levels in western men over the last half century.
While a reduction in testosterone levels is a fact of life for all men as they age – after the age of 30, a man can expect to lose 1% of his natural testosterone every year for the rest of his life – this natural reduction pales in comparison with the society-wide collapse in T levels that has occurred over the second half of the twentieth and the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
Men today have considerably less T than men of the same age even a single generation ago. A 2007 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism showed a significant reduction in the T levels of men since the 1980s. A 60-year-old American man in 2004, for example, had 17% less testosterone than a 60-year-old American man in 1987.
While the collapse of testosterone is likely to be linked to the ubiquity of the xenoestrogenic chemicals Swan warns about, sedentary lifestyles and the consumption of phytoestrogens are also likely to be playing a large role.
All in all, it adds up to a witch’s brew of environmental, social and biological factors that are making it ever harder for men to maintain their masculinity and fulfil their biological purpose.
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