We eat, drink and breathe microplastics every day

The “war on plastic” is officially underway. More of us are ditching single use plastic than ever before as awareness of the impacts of plastic pollution reaches an all time high.

Whether it was seeing a turtle bleed from its nose after having a plastic straw removed from its nostril or perhaps it was the final episode of Blue Planet II, the devastating impact that plastics have on marine life has now become a mainstream issue.

However, it’s not just marine life that plastics are impacting. Only recently have we discovered that humans are being exposed to microplastics and as a result, we still don’t know what the potential health implications of microplastic exposure are.

Dr Stephanie Wright is a researcher at King’s College London currently investigating the human health impact of microplastics. Stephanie first became aware about the potential for human exposure to microplastics during her PhD research when publications on microplastics in shellfish started to emerge.

As we’ve only recently become aware of human exposure to microplastics, there is currently a lack of data in many areas. However, Dr Wright says that this is slowly starting to change. “Groups around the world are beginning to measure [microplastics] in different foods and drinks to understand exposure via ingestion… the field of microplastics will evolve to develop total daily exposure estimates for different diets”.

We’re not only being exposed to microplastics through what we eat. At King’s College London, researchers are also investigating exposure to microplastics through the air (via inhalation) with fibres from textiles/clothing being a big contributor. As it stands, microplastic levels in the air aren’t routinely measured and published unlike other pollutants such as PM2.5, PM10 and NO₂, but that could be about to change as research on microplastic exposure progresses.

Impact on health

At the moment, we can’t say for sure whether microplastic exposure is having a negative impact on our health or not. “We are only just beginning and it takes a robust evidence base to theorise this” says Stephanie. However, we know that additives involved in the production of plastics can cause health problems including cancer. We also know that other pollutants in the air can cause health problems in our lungs and body. We’ll likely be hearing more about the health impacts in the coming years as more research is completed.

So what can you do to reduce your exposure to microplastic? Stephanie says that she tries to avoids single-use plastic where possible as it reduces her microplastic exposure via ingestion. She also sees this as part of the solution to the wider issue from which microplastics derive. However, when it comes to exposure via inhalation, “It’s hard to avoid microplastics in the air, and until we have a clearer understanding of the level and type of harm in relation to levels of exposure, it won’t stop me breathing” she says.

So what is the solution to our plastic problem?

Microplastics is a transnational issue, which has no boundaries. It therefore takes global agreement to tackle it.

Dr Stephanie Wright, King’s College London

It’s clear that the conversation on plastic needs to evolve further. “I would like to see the area of textiles and clothing brought into the conversation rather than single-use packaging alone. I would also like to see governments and businesses realise that recycling is not the solution, reduction should be the focus.”

Thank you to Dr Stephanie Wright for taking the time to answer these questions. You can follow her on twitter @MarineSteph, view her research and watch her feature in BBC’s “War On Plastic”.