People in North America ingest at least 100,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year, according to a report by a coalition of research biologists in British Columbia. The pieces may be as long as a fifth of an inch – about five millimeters – and thin enough to be virtually invisible.
The report is the first that attempts to quantify the amount of plastic routinely entering our bodies.
Half the annual load comes in with food and drinks, the researchers estimate, and the other half we inhale. The airborne bits float up from carpets and car seats, computer keyboards, and any plastic item that’s regularly rubbed or abraded. Most of what goes down the hatch comes from drinks in plastic bottles, which add an estimated 32 times more plastic to a diet compared to that of people who don’t drink from plastic bottles.
Plastic trash also contributes a share, releasing tiny bits of the stuff as bottles, bags, and other waste breaks down in landfills, roadside ditches, and elsewhere.
Perhaps even more disturbing, this study drew its conclusions by analyzing data from 26 previous reports that looked at microplastic samples taken from beer, fish, salt, shellfish, sugar, and water. Those make up only about 15 percent of the total human diet, so that actual volume of plastic each of us takes in annually could be far higher.
Last October, a study of human waste confirmed that people do indeed ingest plastic bits. Some of these particles are small enough to lodge in organs or tissues, possibly causing immune or allergic reactions or creating irritation that could produce tumors over time.
The knowledge that hundreds of pieces of plastic are invading our bodies every day may add new urgency to the growing international movement to find alternatives to plastic. However, people have shown that they’re slow to surrender convenience until regulations – either on consumers or on manufacturers and retailers – force change.