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How to Avoid Damaging Microplastics

13 ways to reduce exposure and your health risks

Pollution isn’t just about what we can see – the rubbish floating in the oceans or piling up on land. There’s something smaller and sneakier causing big problems: microplastics. These tiny bits of plastic are a big threat to both people and nature.

Find out what microplastics are, where they are found and their damaging effects on human health.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are small plastic particles measuring less than five millimetres in size, making them virtually invisible to the human eye. They come in various forms, including microbeads used in personal care products, microfibers that come off your clothes when washed and fragments that shard when big plastic things break down into smaller pieces. Despite their small size, microplastics present a huge problem because they stick around in the environment for a long time and they can soak up other harmful chemicals.

Where are microplastics found?

Microplastics have infiltrated nearly every corner of our planet and can be found in various unexpected places, including:

Water: Microplastics can sneak into rivers, lakes and oceans, either from direct dumping or washing off from the land. For example, tiny plastic beads in exfoliating scrubs can get washed down the drain and end up in rivers and oceans.

Air: They can float into the air and travel through the wind, eventually landing back on land or water. An example is microplastics from tires wearing down on roads, which can become airborne and spread far and wide.

Soil: Some farming methods, like using plastic to cover soil or spreading sewage sludge containing microplastics, can introduce them into the ground. For instance, plastic mulch used in agriculture can break down over time, leaving behind tiny plastic particles in the soil.

Food: Microplastics can find their way into the food chain when tiny aquatic creatures eat them, and then those creatures get eaten by larger animals. A common example is fish ingesting microplastics in the ocean, which can end up on our dinner plates.

Drinking water: They even end up in tap water, bottled water and beer – this shows how widespread microplastics are in our drinking water sources. Plastic bottles can also shed tiny plastic particles into the fluid they contain.

Everyday items like cosmetics, packaging materials and synthetic clothing. Examples include microbeads in toothpaste and face washes, clothes made from polyester or nylon and disposable plastic cutlery and straws. All of these items break down into harmful microplastics.

The hidden dangers of microplastics on health

The presence of microplastics in our environment poses significant risks to human health. When ingested, either directly through food and water or indirectly through inhalation, microplastics can accumulate in the body and lead to a myriad of health problems. Microplastics can act as carriers for harmful chemicals and pathogens, potentially exposing humans to toxic substances.

Microplastics can increase your risk of:

Cancer development due to their ability to induce oxidative stress in the body. When microplastics enter the bloodstream or accumulate in tissues, they can cause damage to cellular DNA and increase the risk of mutations that lead to cancerous growths.

Hormonal imbalance as they contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that interfere with hormone signalling pathways in the body. By mimicking or blocking the action of natural hormones, microplastics can disrupt the delicate balance of hormonal regulation, leading to a variety of health issues related to reproductive health, metabolism and immune function.

Inflammation is a common consequence of microplastic exposure, triggered by the body’s immune response to foreign substances. When microplastics enter the bloodstream or accumulate in tissues, they can elicit an inflammatory reaction. Chronic inflammation can exacerbate existing health conditions and contribute to the development of diseases such as cardiovascular disorders, autoimmune conditions and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Metabolic disorders including obesity and diabetes. These tiny particles can disrupt metabolic pathways and interfere with the body’s ability to regulate energy balance. They can also mess with how your body handles sugar, making it harder for insulin to do its job properly. This can lead to a condition called insulin resistance, where your cells don’t respond well to insulin’s signals. When this happens, your blood sugar levels can go up, putting you at risk for type 2 diabetes.

Neurological damage is a concerning health risk associated with microplastic exposure, particularly for the developing nervous system. Microplastics have shown to cross the blood-brain barrier and accumulate in the brain, where they disrupt the signals in your brain. This causes problems with how your brain cells work and can lead to issues with learning and memory in kids and cognitive decline in adults. 

Changes to the gut microbiome. Microplastics can alter the composition and diversity of the community of microorganisms that inhabit the gastrointestinal tract. When there is an imbalance in your gut bacteria, it can lead to tummy troubles, inflammation and other health issues throughout your body.

Reproductive and developmental toxicity, posing risks to fertility, pregnancy outcomes and offspring health. These particles disrupt the hormones that control reproduction and cause issues with how eggs and sperm develop, potentially leading to poor foetal growth, birth defects and developmental delays.

13 ways to reduce microplastic exposure

  1. Filter your drinking water. Invest in a high-quality water filter that is capable of removing microplastic particles from tap water.
  2. Choose natural fibre clothing such as cotton, wool and linen, which shed fewer microplastic fibres compared to synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon.
  3. Avoid single-use plastics including plastic bags, bottles and packaging. Choose reusable alternatives made from glass, stainless steel or bamboo. If you ever use plastic containers, never heat them in the microwave or store hot food in them, as heat can exacerbate leaching of microplastics.
  4. Swap out cling wrap for beeswax wraps as soft plastics contain more microplastics than hard plastics. Similarly, opt for wood, glass or silicone cutting boards over plastic ones to reduce the generation of microplastics during food preparation.
  5. Avoid plastic water bottles too and be cautious of BPA-free plastic bottles as they may still contain unseen plastic liner materials that leach into the water. Reusable alternatives like glass or stainless steel water bottles are a better option.
  6. Use natural cleaning products like vinegar and bicarb soda to avoid microplastic ingredients such as polyethylene glycol (PEG) or polypropylene (PP) that are found in regular cleaning products.
  7. Avoid microbeads in personal care products. Check the ingredient labels of cosmetics, skincare products and toothpaste to ensure they don’t contain microbeads used as exfoliants. Look for products with natural alternatives like apricot kernel powder or jojoba beads.
  8. Cook with glass or stainless steel and avoid cooking in plastic-coated cookware as heat can cause plastic to leach harmful chemicals and microplastics into food.
  9. Reduce consumption of seafood, particularly shellfish, as they tend to contain higher levels of microplastics due to their filtering nature. Select wild-caught fish or seafood products from reputable sources that are harvested using sustainable fishing practices.
  10. Avoid tinned food as tins are often lined with chemicals like BPA or other plastic alternatives that may leach into the contents, especially acidic foods like tomatoes and oily seafood.
  11. Swap out plastic-containing teabags for refillable and reusable linen tea bags or tea balls. Many tea brands use plastic in their bags (found in the sealant used to close the tea bag) which can leach into your tea when hot water is added.
  12. Replace conventional sea salt with alternatives like Redmond or Himalayan salt. Microplastics can infiltrate sea salt due to ocean pollution. Redmond salt, for instance, offers a cleaner option sourced from pristine environments, ensuring your seasoning is free from these harmful contaminants.
  13. Avoid processed foods as they are manufactured using plastic tools or packaging which can introduce microplastics into the final product during production and packaging. Always opt for a whole food, naturopathic diet that is rich in organic vegetables, quality protein and healthy fats.

A healthier, plastic-free future

Though tiny, microplastics pose significant threats to both human health and the environment. Found virtually everywhere, from drinking water to the air we breathe and the food we consume, these minuscule plastic particles can disrupt hormonal balance, trigger inflammation, and even contribute to cancer risk. To minimise exposure, opt for natural alternatives, avoid single-use plastics, and make conscious food choices. By taking proactive steps to reduce microplastic pollution, you can safeguard your well-being and the planet.

To learn more about nutrition and natural health, see CNM’s Nutrition for Everyday Living Short course and Naturopathic Diet Mini Course.

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Blog/Article content reflects the author's research and diverse opinions, not necessarily CNM's views. Items may not be regularly updated, so represent the best available understanding at the time of publication.

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