Canadian study sends early warning over humans consuming microplastics

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A University of Victoria study has discovered that each of us consumes an average of 70,000 to 121,000 microplastic particles per year, depending on the food we eat, our clothing, or age and gender.

Lead author of the research paper, Kieran Cox, a marine biology PhD candidate in UVic biologist Francis Juanes’ lab, found that these tiny pieces of plastic just under five millimetres in diameter come from the degradation of larger plastic products or the shedding of particles from water bottles, plastic packaging and synthetic clothes.

The microplastics can easily sneak into our bodies undetected through the food we eat or the air we breathe. Still, the health consequences of microplastics entering the human body are still largely unknown.

“Human reliance on plastic packaging and food processing methods for major food groups such as meats, fruits and veggies is a growing problem,” Cox states in a media statement from UVic on the study. “Our research suggests microplastics will continue to be found in the majority–if not all–of items intended for human consumption,” adds Cox. “We need to reassess our reliance on synthetic materials and alter how we manage them to change our relationship with plastics.”

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While numerous studies have explored the presence of microplastics in water, land and air, the new study released last week may be the first to explore human consumption of the plastics so prevalent in items such as facial scrubs and other toiletries.

Cox, who is calling for more research on microplastic consumption, says he and his colleagues reviewed 26 previous studies that assessed the amount of microplastics found in individual food items. They analyzed the amount of microplastics in fish, shellfish, sugars, salts, beer, water and air, which account for 15% of Americans’ caloric intake, while the remainder of the foods people typically eat have yet to be examined for their microplastic impact.

The study also suggests that an avid consumer of bottled water could have a disproportionately higher level of microplastics in their system that could reach an additional 100,000 plastic pieces each year.

In summer 2018, Canada launched a comprehensive ban that removes most microbeads from store shelves and prohibits the manufacture, import and sale of most toiletry products that contain microbeads. The ban is set to be expanded in July 2019 to include microbeads in natural health products and non-prescription drugs.

The UVic study, released June 5, was co-authored by scientists at UVic, Hakai Institute, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Liber Ero Foundation.

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