Microplastics have been the subject of negative press in the last few years. Recent studies found microplastics in the placentas of unborn babies, causing ample concern among scientists.
Over the past few months, we’ve been examining the crucial role of nutrition in ensuring health and strength. The great Vince Gironda once famously said that bodybuilding ‘is 85% nutrition’ (see our articles on his diets here and here), but it’s still probably the case that the average person, even the average bodybuilder, underestimates just how important correct nutrition is. We have already discussed vegetable oil, soy and six superfoods you should be eating.
The role of nutrition is also central to our series on testosterone, to accompany our forthcoming book Reclaim Your Masculinity: foods that raise your testosterone, foods that lower it and the role of environmental chemicals (xenoestrogens) in the food chain that can upset your hormonal balance. While you might think that plastic has nothing to do with nutrition – after all, who eats plastic? – the sad truth is that plastic is now entering the food chain in an unprecedented way. In our article on xenoestrogens, we’ve already seen how exposure to pthalates, which have a variety of uses in plastic manufacture, can have all sorts of serious gender-bending effects. Here we’ll look at the role of microplastics and their potential effects.
Plastic not so fantastic: our seas and oceans have become a plastic graveyard
We’ve all seen the images. Our beautiful seas and oceans defiled by vast quantities of single-use plastic. The enormous artificial reefs of trash. Seabirds ensnared in plastic beer can rings. The rotting corpse of a sea turtle suspended in a web of plastic netting. The contents of a sperm whale’s stomach: 100kg of assorted plastic – nets, ropes, bags, straps, cups and bottles. The list goes on…
A sperm whale found stranded on the Isle of Harris, Scotland
had 100kg of plastic in its stomach
While much of the focus, rightly, is on the massive quantity of visible pieces of plastic waste that are clogging our seas and oceans and strangling its inhabitants, as well as on noble endeavours to reduce it, such as Boyan Slat’s Ocean Cleanup company, the truth is that the problem of plastic pollution extends well beyond the visible.
The phenomenon of microplastics, literally microscopic pieces of plastic, is now generating increasing awareness, as we learn more about their ubiquity in our seas and oceans and also their growing presence in the food chain. The long-term effects of microplastics on humans and animals are as yet largely unknown, but they are unlikely to be good.
What Are Microplastics
Microplastics of a larger variety
Microplastics, as the name suggests, are simply very small pieces of plastic. While some microplastics are still visible to the naked eye, as in the picture above, some – perhaps the vast majority – are not. Generally, the classification is any piece of plastic below 5mm in size.
Microplastics are further categorised into primary and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics are manufactured as microplastics, meaning they are designed to be the size they are. These include microbeads, which are often used in beauty products, nurdles (small pellets) and clothing fibres. It is estimated that a single washing cycle can cause synthetic clothing fibres to shed as many as 700, 000 fibres. [R]
Secondary microplastics, by contrast, are created through the breakdown of larger pieces of plastics, which can occur as a result of UV rays from the sun, and the action of wind and waves. A piece of polystyrene, perhaps a takeaway food carton, might break down into tiny pieces over time as it sits on the beach, under the action of the sun, sea and wind.
Microplastics in the Food Chain and in Human Bodies
The human placenta, now a known home to microplastics
In December 2020, to the shock of the researchers and the mothers who took part, a study revealed that microplastics had been discovered in the placentas of unborn babies. [R] The particles were found in the placentas of four women who had otherwise normal pregnancies, and were discovered on both sides of the placenta (that is, on the maternal side and the foetal side, as well as in the membrane within which the foetus develops).
Only a small piece of each placenta was examined, suggesting that many more particles were present than were actually found. All of the particles had been dyed, suggesting that they had come from packaging, paints, personal care products or cosmetics. The mothers may have either consumed the plastic or inhaled it. Yes, that’s right: there are microplastics in the air. In fact, in one study, of airborne dust, 4% of all particles the researchers found were plastic. So that’s just under 1/20 of all the airborne dust. [R]
TFW you learn about airborne microplastics
What’s more, the particles were small enough – 10 microns or 0.01mm – to enter the bloodstream. It is entirely possible, then, that microplastics had been transferred into the babies’ blood; although the researchers did not investigate this.
As shocking as this is, it’s totally consistent with what we have come to know in recent years about the ubiquity of microplastics. Microplastics in rain. [R] Microplastics in Arctic ice. [R] Microplastics in fish and fruit and vegetables. [R] [R] Microplastics in drinking water and waste waster. [R] [R] Microplastics are everywhere. So what does this mean?
Microplastics: Health Implications
A baby fish full of microplastic balls
We already know that the actual physical effects of consuming microplastics can be deadly for many species of animal. Fish, for instance, are being killed because some varieties seem to prefer eating microplastics to their normal food sources, effectively starving them. Baby fish are especially vulnerable. [R]
The implications for humans are less clear, beyond the possible contribution of microplastics to declining fish stocks and the collapse of marine ecosystems and the knock-on effects of this for us; but we can still speculate about what effects these microplastics might be having in the human body as well.
In our article on xenoestrogens, we considered the role of pthalates, in particular, to endocrine (i.e. hormonal) disruption in humans and other animals. Pthalates were first introduced on a wide scale during the 1950s, when PVC became readily available. They are used to increase plastic flexibility, and as a result have a myriad of applications: in food containers, water bottles and children’s toys, as well as foams, solvents, perfumes, pesticides, nail polish, adhesives and lubricants. Studies of pthalates have shown that prenatal exposure may cause feminisation of baby boys and be responsible for smaller penis size. [R]
Given that many if not all of these microplastics will have been treated with such substances, we can imagine that they might also act as vectors for them to enter the human body, with disruptive effects. Just how great these effects might be remains to be seen, and requires urgent research.
We do already have a number of studies on the effects of microplastics on marine life, and the findings are as dire as you might expect. In one study of female fish, the researchers found that the microplastics caused tissue damage, disrupted production of reproductive and sex-specific hormones including 17β-estradiol and testosterone and had noticeable cross-generational effects, stunting the growth of newborn fish, as well as increasing the incubation period and decreasing the rate of hatching. [R] Other studies have documented liver toxicity and various other pathologies in marine life. [R] [R]
What Can Be Done?
Brendan Fraser before and after he learned about microplastics
Although there are ways to reduce your potential exposure to microplastics, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to do so totally, at least while remaining in the modern world. Even if fish and shellfish are the main route from the foodchain into humans, microplastics have been found in non-marine food sources including chicken, honey and beer. Bottled water is another major contributor; in fact, it may be a much greater contributor of microplastics than any quantity of fish you are likely to eat. [R]
One thing you can do, as we urged in our article on xenoestrogens is to start reducing your reliance on plastic – NOW! That includes water bottles, canned foods, non-stick cookware and plastic wrappings. You can also choose natural fibres such as wool and cotton over synthetic fibres, install a reverse osmosis water filter with an activated carbon filter for your drinking water and aim to but organic, locally grown or raised food.
But until researchers can come up with a way to scrub our environment of these harmful little pellets, we’re just going to have to accept that we’re all part-plastic these days.
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