We’re Slowly Turning into Plastic People
One study says we ingest the equivalent of a credit card every week. Here are some things you can do to make yourself safer.
Microplastics: An Origin Story
Plastic Man was introduced to the comic book world in 1941. He was Deadpool before Deadpool because he often broke the 4th wall and cracked wise to his comic book audience. He was Mr. Fantastic before Mr. Fantastic because he could stretch his body to great lengths and conform to any shape.
But more than any comic book character, with the possible exception of the Hulk and his association with the nuclear age, Plastic Man was a product of the times he was born in, as his birth was inspired by WWII and the burgeoning plastics industry.
New plastics were being invented and regularly appropriated by the war effort. The discovery of polyethylene, for instance, was used to insulate radar cabling, lightening it to such a degree that it became feasible to put them on English planes and give them a significant advantage over the Krauts.
Meanwhile, across the pond, in another example, DuPont invented nylon, which was initially released for sale as synthetic silk hosiery for dames but was then repurposed by the U.S. Military for use in parachutes and ropes.
So, it was only natural that when Patrick “Eel” O’Brian, a small-time crook, attempted a heist of the Crawford Chemical Company, he was engulfed by a vat of “unidentified chemicals” and transformed into the most malleable of crime fighters, Plastic Man.
As origin stories go, it’s standard stuff. Unfortunately, you and I are also being turned into “plastic men,” but our origin story is potentially much more tragic than that of the original.
Let me explain.
Just How Bad Is It?
Every year, approximately 4.85 trillion microplastics (fragments between 100 nanometers and 5 millimeters in size) are released into the oceans. The number of nanoplastics (fragments between 1 to 100 nanometers) is likely worse. To put those sizes into perspective, viruses that can easily sashay into human cells are approximately 100 nanometers in diameter.
My point regarding their size is this: these plastic particles can easily get into our lungs, our blood, our organs, and even our brains… and they do, turning us into real-life versions of Plastic Man, only without the ability to watch TV in the living room and stretch an arm out to grab a beer from the fridge in the kitchen, 30 feet away.
Consider that two-thirds of the clothing we buy is made of plastic and it’s constantly being shed into the swirling air current around us. If our vision was keen enough and the sun were shining just right, we’d all look like Pigpen from Peanuts, only the cloud would consist of plastic particles instead of dirt.
Plastics are in bottled water, beer, fish, honey, teabags, Keurig cups, and table salt. They’re in soup cans, toys, electronics, shampoos, cosmetics, and thousands of single-use items like candy wrappers.
Our dryers vomit plastic particles out of their vents. Your Starbuck’s coffee cup is lined with the same polyethylene used to coat radar cabling in WWII and every time you raise the cup to your mouth, you knock thousands of microparticles and millions of nanoplastics loose.
Most of the carpets you walk on are nylon, polypropylene, or polyester. Every time you walk across them, you’re kicking up plastic particles like a kid kicking his way through piles of dead leaves in the fall.
And the slightest crack, visible or not, in your Teflon pan spices up your corned beef hash with as many as 2.3 million tiny particles, and that number is based on just 30 seconds of cooking time. Similarly, the plastic cooking spoons, whisks, or spatulas you use to stir your food – assuming it’s at least 158 degrees F, dump their own nefarious seasonings into your dinner.
Regarding the latter, German scientists found that ingesting just 90 micrograms of these oligomers (the building blocks of plastic polymers) would be dangerous to someone weighing 60 kilos (about 132 pounds). That fact is meaningless until you look at their findings: Of the 33 plastic kitchen utensils they tested, 10 of them (about 30 percent) could easily exceed the 90-microgram daily limit if multiple meals were prepared using them.
Plastics have been found at the bottom of the Marianna Trench and at the top of the Pyrenees. Henderson Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with no human habitants, is littered with more than 37 million plastic fragments, and those are just the visible ones (not microplastics or nanoplastics).
I could go on for pages.
Every Breath You Take
Author Matt Simon describes the enormity of the problem in his new book, A Poison Like No Other:
“You are at this moment exposed to some of the highest concentrations of microplastic anywhere. Stare into the light pouring in through a window and you’ll catch glimmers of airborne microplastics flittering around like insects. Leave out a glass of water and you’ll find microfibers from your clothes creating tiny dents of surface tension. Leave a glass next to your bed when you change your sheets and you’ll see just how many particles the fabric flings into the air. The dust that accumulates in corners and the lint that sticks to your clothes—it’s all plastic.”
It seems most people don’t think about this topic much at all. They think they’re doing their part to combat the problem by recycling their plastic Snapple bottles. As if.
Greenpeace recently reported that the U.S. recycles less than 5% of plastics, the rest being burned, landfilled, or tossed out of car windows or off the decks of boats where environmental forces act on these plastic objects like rock tumblers until they’re atomized and float, seep, or sink into our ecosystems.
With apologies to Sting, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, you’ll be launching untold thousands of plastic particles into the air. Likewise, every bite of food, every sip of water, every breath, introduces more plastic into your body.
How much plastic? Researchers at the University of Newcastle in Australia estimate that people consume about 5 grams of these plastics a week, which is roughly the equivalent of a credit card.
Why, with a little bit of sphincteral dexterity, you could be your own 3D printer, popping out a miniature plastic chifforobe and other pieces of furniture for your daughter’s dollhouse.
I’m being ridiculous, of course. Everyone knows that most of the plastic isn’t excreted and stays in your body.
Just How Can Plastics Hurt Us?
There just hasn’t been that much research done on exactly how microplastics can hurt us, but Pete Myers, the founder and chief scientist of the nonprofit Environmental Health Services and adjunct professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, channeled the Greek Goddess Minerva and said it this way: “There cannot be no effect.”
That being said, there is some research to draw upon and it’s discomforting. Here are just a few of the potentially harmful effects of ingesting micro and nano plastics:
- Altered hormone levels and reproductive ability
- Chronic lung inflammation (plastic fibers can remain trapped in lung tissue)
- Reduced testosterone levels
- Sperm abnormalities
- Altered energy and lipid metabolism
- Liver toxicity
- Altered gut microbiota
- Insulin insensitivity
- Changes to genes related to glucose and lipid metabolism
- High cholesterol
- Pancreatic cancer
- Testicular cancer
- Liver cancer
- Lung cancer
- Developmental delays in children
- Passage of microplastics across the placenta to developing fetuses
And that’s just what we know about and doesn’t include what we suspect.
Do We Have Any Recourse?
There is no easy fix, of course. Granted, you could eliminate most of the plastics in your life, but it would practically have to become your life’s work. And even then, you’d likely make plenty of mistakes. After all, fighting a virtually invisible enemy ain’t easy.
That being said, there are probably a few things you can do to slow down your conversion to a modern-day Plastic Man. Here are my recommendations, none of which require that much effort:
- Get rid of your Teflon frying pans and all your plastic cooking utensils. Go ceramic, cast iron, or carbon steel, and opt for metal or wooden utensils.
- Don’t microwave leftovers in plastic containers, especially time-worn ones. The FDA says it’s okay, but I think the risk is too great and it’s an easy fix.
- Make your own coffee (non-Keurig cup) and use good ol’ ceramic cups. Alternately, give yourself a little extra time at your local mom and pop coffee shop and drink it there – in a mug instead of a paper cup.
- If you have plastic food containers, hand wash them (they leach chemicals onto other dishes in the dishwasher).
- Try to buy condiments and sauces that come in glass containers.
- Unless you have wool, seagrass, or sisal carpets, vacuum the hell out of them on a regular basis to keep air-borne plastics to a minimum.
- Consider drinking tap water instead of bottled water. Even though tap water is one of the biggest contributors to microplastic ingestion, bottled water contains about twice the microplastic level found in tap water.
- Buy hemp underwear. No. Kidding. Sort of. However, if possible, opt for natural-fiber clothing. You know, cotton.
Do all the above and you’ll still be besieged by micro and nanoplastics, but hopefully, the reduction in exposure will give you a fighting chance of making it out of here alive.
- O’Neill SM et al. Knowledge gaps on micro and nanoplastics and human health: A Critical Review. CSCEE. 2021 Jun;3:100091.
- Luo Y et al. Raman imaging for the identification of Teflon microplastics and nanoplastics released from non-stick cookware. Sci Total Environ. 2022 Dec 10;851(2):158293.
- Polyamide Kitchen Utensils: Keep contact with hot food as brief as possible. BfR Opinion No. 036/2019 of 17 September 2019.