Microplastics in Human Blood and Digestive System: What We Know
- Small studies have found microplastics in the human gut and bloodstream.
- These tiny plastic pieces come from old tires, disposable bags, water bottles, clothing, and more.
- If consumed, they can cause digestive problems and infections since they absorb toxic substances.
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that pollute the air, the oceans, and the food we eat. Scientists have discovered that we carry microplastics in our bloodstream, but it’s not yet clear how dangerous this is for human health.
Here’s what you need to know about how microplastics get into your blood, what this means for your health, and how to avoid them.
What are microplastics?
“Microplastics are small pieces of plastic — typically less than 5 millimeters in length — that are formed when plastic products break down in the environment,” says Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, a board-certified medical toxicology physician, and Co-Medical Director at National Capital Poison Center.
They typically come from the plastic products we throw away that end up scattered on the land and oceans, where they’re exposed to water currents, wind, and sunlight.
Since plastic doesn’t easily biodegrade, these environmental effects just break it down into much smaller pieces, Johnson-Arbor says.
According to Dick Vethaak, a professor of environment and health at VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands, some of the main sources of microplastics include:
- Disposable packaging materials like plastic bags and containers
- Synthetic clothing fibers
- Paints and coatings
- Emissions from factories and plants
Microplastics are also purposefully added to some skincare products to help exfoliate your skin.
Are there microplastics in human blood?
Since microplastics are so tiny, we consume them without knowing— “there are increasing reports of microplastic contamination in our drinking water, milk, food, and air,” says Vethaak.
In fact, one 2021 study estimated that children ingest more than 500 microplastic specks per day, while adults take in nearly 900. And the scientists note that this is an early estimate and the actual numbers may be much higher.
And while most of the microplastics we consume travel through our digestive tract and end up in our feces, a small fraction of tiny microplastics, called nanoplastics, may be able to cross the barriers of your lungs and intestines and enter your bloodstream, Vethaak says.
A very small 2022 study backed this up, finding evidence of microplastics in human blood. The researchers acknowledged that this may be a risk to public health.
Is it dangerous to consume microplastics?
Experts still don’t know exactly how dangerous microplastics are to your health. To understand this, “we need more studies on how the human body processes and gets rid of microplastics,” Johnson-Arbor says.
Animal studies and studies done on human cells have shown that exposure to microplastics can cause inflammation, hormone disruption, and other negative health effects. “However, these findings are challenging to translate to humans and real-world exposures,” Vethaak says.
Experts warn that there are a few main health concerns that could be linked to microplastics, including:
- Toxic substances: Microplastics can absorb toxic materials like pesticides, heavy metals, and cancer-causing chemicals. They can then transport these toxic materials into your body and cause health issues, Johnson-Arbor says.
- Digestive issues: Some research suggests that people with inflammatory bowel disease consume more microplastics than others. The microplastics may contribute to inflammation in the digestive tract.
- Infections: Harmful microbes like bacteria can grow on microplastics, so when we breathe in or ingest the specks, they can carry disease directly into our bodies, Vethaak says.
- Build-up in your body: Over long-term exposure, it’s possible that microplastics could accumulate in your tissues and organs, causing damage, Vethaak says.
How to avoid microplastics
“Microplastics are ubiquitous in our environment, and it’s pretty much impossible for an individual person to avoid them entirely,” Johnson-Arbor says.
However, there are some methods you can use to cut down your exposure to microplastics. Vethaak offers these recommendations:
1. Avoid using skincare products that contain micro or nanoplastic beads. The Plastic Soup Foundation in the Netherlands has an app where you can screen your products to see if they contain microplastics.
2. Ventilate your house or office by regularly running the AC or opening your windows, as plastic particles tend to accumulate heavily in indoor house dust.
3. Buy clothes made of natural fibers like cotton or linen. Synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon can release microplastics when you wear or wash them.
4. Don’t heat food or drinks in plastic containers — opt for tempered glass or metal instead.
5. Avoid eating canned food — the inside of cans contains a layer of plastic that may release hazardous chemicals and plastic particles.
You can also try to limit the amount of microplastics that you release into the overall environment. Johnson-Arbor offers these tips:
1. Ask for no disposable utensils when getting takeout meals, and use your own utensils instead.
2. Avoid drinking water from plastic bottles — a 2018 study found that bottled water contains about twice as many microplastics as tap water.
3. Choose paper plates instead of plastic dishware if you have an event like a barbecue. You can also try bamboo utensils instead of plastic.
4. Bring your own takeout containers to restaurants to avoid being offered single-use plastic containers for your leftovers.
Microplastics have been found in human blood, but we still don’t fully understand the effect they have on our health.
But there is some reason for concern — “while microplastics may not affect our health right now, they will likely cause health risks to the environment, animals, and humans in the coming decades,” Vethaak says.
If you have questions about toxicity from plastic products, Johnson-Arbor recommends contacting poison control for expert advice. You can find them online at www.poison.org or by phone at 1-800-222-1222.