Microplastics In the American Diet

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Fruits and vegetables with a side of microplastics. An apple a day probably means you've eaten some plastic.

Do you know that you likely consume plastics every day? Researchers found that Americans eat from 39,000 to 52,000 particles of plastic a year. Those who drink bottled water may ingest an additional 90,000 microplastics.

Recent studies found microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic smaller than five millimeters in size, in food. One study published in the August issue of Environmental Research looked at vegetable and fruit samples. Researchers discovered microplastics in the produce samples, with fruit showing the most contamination, and calculated the estimated daily intakes (EDIs) for adults and children of each type of vegetable and fruit examined. The highest EDIs among adults and children were due to apples and carrots had the lowest EDIs. The results indicate that “toxicological and epidemiological studies to investigate for the possible effects of microplastics on human health” are urgently needed.

A study published in June looked at microplastics in agricultural soils. What they found is that microplastics can accumulate in soils. Researchers concluded that the accumulation of microplastics in soil “can have both direct ecological effects and implications for agricultural sustainability and food safety.”

Microplastics in the ocean

Our oceans are teeming with microplastics. For example, Zooplankton consumes microplastics. Salmon consumes zooplankton. A 2015 study found that zooplankton causes juvenile salmon in coastal British Columbia to ingest two to seven microplastic particles a day, and returning adult salmon ingest more than 91 salmon a day. Another study published the same year found that in Indonesia, plastic debris was found in 28 percent of individual fish and 55 percent of all species.

Plastics occur in the deepest parts of the oceans, and the animals living there have ingested it, a British study found. The research teams tested samples of crustaceans found in the deepest trenches in the Pacific Ocean. What they found is that plastic ingestion ranged from 50 percent to 100 percent.

“We felt we had to do this study given the unique access we have to some of the most remote places on earth, and we are using these samples to make a poignant statement about mankind’s legacy,” said research lead Dr. Alan Jamieson.

The low-down on microplastics

The microplastics found in the food supply and oceans comes from a variety of sources, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, ranging from beads, fragments, pellets, and fibers. Plastic sources can range from larger pieces of plastic to microbeads, a type of microplastic added as exfoliants to health and beauty products. Microbeads, a primary form of microplastics, can pass through water filtration systems and wind up in the ocean and lakes. Microbeads first appeared around fifty years ago in personal care products but are much more common now.

Larger pieces of plastic are secondary sources. They come from plastics that include beverage bottles, bags, and food containers. Natural elements such as the sun, wind, and waves cause the plastics to degrade and break into smaller pieces, which can turn into microplastics.

What you can do

There is something you can do to reduce microplastics. The first thing you can do is reduce the amount of plastic you use. Opt for reusable grocery bags. Some stores will not allow the use of reusable bags due to COVID-19 concerns. There is a work-around. Ask the store employee to put your groceries into the cart without bags and bag them once you get to your car. Reuse plastic containers whenever you can. Always properly dispose of them. Garbage belongs in a garbage can and not thrown out in nature. 

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