'Plastic is polluting our own bodies too': Here's how to consume less in your diet
Every week, we each ingest a credit card-sized amount of 'microplastic' - and it's storing up trouble, says Maria Lally
Back in the early 90s, when convenience culture exploded, my mother took a rather more cautious view. She refused to buy boil-in-the-bag meals, drink anything from a plastic bottle or use a microwave. And while everybody else on our road began buying milk in large, plastic containers from supermarkets, she remained steadfastly loyal to the milkman, who continued to deliver our milk in glass bottles.
Teased by her friends, she replied: "You just don't know what all that plastic is doing to your health."
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Fast forward 30 or so years and it's a question that needs answering urgently.
Last week, researchers from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) found that the average person unwittingly eats up to 102,000 pieces of microplastic (tiny pieces smaller than 1mm) each year - the equivalent of a credit card-sized amount of plastic each week - with around 90pc coming from water and the rest via food and other drinks.
Alec Taylor, Head of Marine Policy at WWF, says: "Plastic is polluting our planet in the deepest ocean trenches, but now we know that it's also polluting our own bodies, through the food we eat and the water we drink.
"This report must serve as a wake-up call - we don't want plastic in our oceans, and we don't want it on our plates."
Microplastics can leach from plastic containers into our food and drink; and discarded plastic grinds down over time into small pieces that end up in our water supply, or get eaten by animals, fish and shellfish, which then get eaten by us.
The WWF findings follow another study, from Penn State Behrend University in the US, that analysed samples taken from 259 bottled waters sold in various countries and found that 93pc contained microplastics. And many weren't very micro at all: "Some were definitely visible without a magnifying glass or microscope," says Sherri Mason, the study author, whose findings have led to the World Health Organisation announcing plans to investigate the safety of bottled water, with results expected at the end of this year.
"People are aware of plastic bags floating around our oceans, but they're less aware of how that plastic is making its way back to us through our diet," says Michael Coleman, Professor of Toxicology at Aston University, Birmingham. "And we're only just beginning to understand what happens when it does."
Coleman says that while the larger microparticles go straight through our system, the smaller ones cause him more concern. "There's evidence that the really tiny particles enter our cells. And like an unwelcome intruder that causes a homeowner to dial 999, they cause an immune response in the body, which can cause inflammation and other issues."
Although the long-term health effects of plastic consumption are unknown, some studies have shown it may produce inflammation of the respiratory tract, and some plastic-containing chemicals have been shown to influence sexual function and fertility, and increase the risk of certain cancers.
"Microplastics may also have a Trojan Horse capability," says Prof Coleman, who adds that they can enter the body under the guise of hormones such as oestrogen, which they mimic. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are widespread and found in children's toys and plastic bottles, and may interfere with hormone function.
"And these chemicals are persistent and difficult to break down. Plastic was built to be sturdy and last a long time, after all, because we didn't want our groceries spilling out on to the street like they did when carried in paper bags. But is there a health cost to their sturdy nature? We don't know, but scientists are trying to find out."
Alistair Grant, professor of ecology at the University of East Anglia, is less concerned: "Plastic is everywhere: it gets thrown away and breaks down; plastic fibres come off our clothes and go into waste water. There's no avoiding it.
"In terms of concentration, there are roughly 20 times more plastic particles per litre in bottled water than tap, which is due to the manufacturing process. Huge blocks of plastic are turned into water bottles and tiny bits of plastic break off. So if people want to reduce their plastic intake, they should avoid bottled water.
"However, I think the important message to take away is that we're talking about a relatively small amount of particles here, and there's no proof that they're causing us any harm.
"Studies have tested the effects of plastic particles on a range of animals and found that it takes a huge concentration to have an adverse affect - certainly much higher than you'd find in the environment. And remember, there are strict guidelines surrounding plastic food and drink containers.
"This study doesn't concern me. What concerns me is the effect that plastic is having on the environment, and the fact 14pc of deaths are obesity-related. That should concern people more."
Prof Coleman, however, disagrees: "Avoiding plastic is no longer just an environmental issue - it's becoming apparent that it needs to be a health one too."
How to avoid ingesting plastic in your diet
Rethink water: "Don't drink from plastic bottles," says Prof Coleman.
"Drink tap water instead, and filter it."
Carry cutlery: instead of using plastic knives and forks, bring your own, "especially if you're eating hot food", says Prof Coleman. "When you dip a plastic spoon into hot soup, it softens, so there's a possibility of plastic entering your food. This is also why water left overnight in a plastic water bottle tastes plastic-y."
Think about containers: try to avoid eating food from plastic-lined containers, or coffee out of plastic-lined cups.
Pick seafood wisely: "We know that feeder fish, like mussels and clams, are particularly prone to accumulating plastic," says Prof Coleman.
Make a stand with your wallet: "The food industry is very powerful but also bows to demand," says Prof Coleman. "Buy apples from the place that sells them in brown paper bags."
Don't panic: "Our food and water is generally pure," says Prof Coleman.
"The gestures above are small but if 20 million people make a small gesture, it becomes big."