Uncovering the Hidden Dangers: Plastics in Food and Drinking WaterFeb 07, 2024
by Sophia Ruan Gushée
Plastics, microplastics, and nanoplastics have been circulating the news headlines in recent months because studies have detected plastic particles in food and water! With studies detecting microplastics in food, drinking water, wildlife, and human bodies, you might be wondering if there's anything you can do to avoid eating and drinking plastics. In short, Yes, you can avoid microplastics and nanoplastics in food and water!
Keep reading to learn important findings about the plastics in food and water and how this poses health risks. This article will teach you practical ways to avoid plastics in food and water. Even better is that these tips will help protect our planet's ecosystems.
Plastics In Food
Plastics are unavoidable. They are in homes and routines in countless ways.
Sometimes plastics are obvious and convenient, like plastic food containers.
Sometimes they are not obvious, like plastic pipes in our water treatment and sewage systems.
Sometimes they are life-saving, like in medical settings.
And, sometimes they are frivolous, like excess toys, clothes, home furnishings, and beauty products.
Since some plastics can take hundreds of years to decompose in our landfills and oceans, they keep breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces and travel the world through wind, air, water, animals, and us. These infinitesimally small plastic pieces then contaminate our oceans, soil, food supply, drinking water, household air and dust, and us.
Plastics in Humans
As plastics break down into tinier and tinier fibers or particles, they become easier for us to inhale and absorb.
As they travel the world in smaller and smaller forms over centuries, they also become integrated into our food supply through air, dust, soil, manufacturing processes, and food and beverage packaging.
In recent years, plastics have been detected in our stools, blood, lungs, placentas, breastmilk, infant feces, and meconium. How do these exposures to plastics and our growing body burden of plastics influence our health and development?
More studies are needed to understand this fully. However, the next section identifies major sources of health risks.
What are the risks of consuming plastic-contaminated food and water?
The health effects of plastic in food, or health risks of plastic in drinking water, will take decades and maybe centuries to understand sufficiently. Obvious risks come from the size of the plastic particles, the continuous release of contaminants from the plastic, and the cocktail effects from these toxic exposures, our body burden, and our inner ecosystem.
Risks from the infinitesimal size of the plastics in us
Nanoplastics, and other nanoparticles, are so small that they can travel to more places within our bodies. For example, scientists are studying the effects of their ability to pass through the intestines, lungs, membranes, and other organs as well as the effects of traveling through the bloodstream.
Risks from the contaminants from the plastics
Plastics can be made from any number of 13,000 chemicals, according to a 2023 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Report titled "Chemicals in Plastics." Some are known to be endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, and reproductive toxicants, and harm us in many other ways.
The UNEP identifies ten groups of chemicals that are of major concern due to their high toxicity and potential to migrate or be released from plastics. Examples include specific flame retardants, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), phthalates, bisphenols, certain metals and metalloids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and many other non-intentionally added substances (NIAS).
- Please note that many of these "Household Repeat Offenders" are discussed in A to Z of D-Toxing: The Ultimate Guide To Reducing Our Toxic Exposures, and the 40-Day Home Detox and D-Tox Academy will help you detox your choices.
Risks from the cocktail effects
There are additional risks from how one (or more) toxic compound(s) react(s) with another (or more) to create different toxic effects. When one contaminant combines with another, the effects from their combination can be different than the effects from the individual contaminants. Also, the damage from one contaminant can create a different vulnerability to another (or other) contaminant(s).
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Plastics, Microplastics, and Nanoplastics: What's The Difference?
Since plastics can take up to 500 years to break down, microplastics break down into tinier pieces each year. Currently, the smallest pieces of plastics that technology can identify are referred to as nanoplastics, which are smaller than microplastics.
Microplastics measure 5 millimeters to 1 micrometer, according to James Doubek's January 2024 NPR article "Researchers find a massive number of plastic particles in bottled water."
Nanoplastics are even smaller, measuring less than 1 micrometer. As a comparison, the size of nanoplastics have been described as:
- "often smaller than a speck of dust," according to John Yang, the anchor of PBS News Weekend and a correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, in his interview with George Leonard, chief scientist at Ocean Conservancy and a co-author of one of the studies that found that we’re eating and drinking more plastic than realized
- one-seventieth of the thickness of a human hair, according to Doubek
- "a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair," according to Evan Lubofsky, a science writer and editor at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
While you can't avoid plastics completely, you can reduce your exposure.
Let's focus on common sources of plastic exposure.
Common Sources of Plastics In Food
Plastics are found throughout our food ingredients. For example, a recent study by researchers at Ocean Conservancy and the University of Toronto found microplastic particles in approximately 88% of protein samples tested. As described in the February 2024 journal Environmental Pollution, the samples included 16 protein types, such as beef, chicken, seafood, pork, tofu, and plant-based food products.
Microplastic particles were discovered across all 16 sample types. Other surprising findings include:
- "Highly processed products contained the most microplastics per gram," the study said in its findings.
- "Microplastic contamination did not differ between brands or store types."
- Since the researchers were limited to detecting microplastics 45 μm and larger, researchers recognized that the amount of particles in their samples could be even higher than what they were able to measure. Due to their detection limits, nanoplastics (NPs) and any MPs <45 μm were not included in their results.
Among the tested samples, approximately 44% of the microplastics found were in the form of fibers. An additional third of the particles were in the form of plastic fragments.
What are the sources of plastic contamination in food? There are many.
In the case of animal protein, sources of plastic contamination can include the animal's diet (like if it was stored in plastic containers), drinking water, air, and dust. Second, plastic contamination in food can come from manufacturing and food packaging.
Plastics In Drinking Water
A growing number of studies have been examining plastic pollution in water. Recently, advancements in technology have been able to identify smaller plastic particles, which has revealed microplastics and nanoplastics in drinking water.
An important area of further study will be the health effects of drinking and eating nanoplastics, which were found to be 10 to 100 times more common than microplastics in bottled water, according to George Leonard. A study by researchers at Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, and Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found an average of 240,000 plastic fragments in a liter of bottled water.
- To learn more, read "How many microplastics have been found in plastic bottled water versus tap water?"
4 Easy Tips To Avoid Plastics in Food & Drinking Water
Through modifications in your habits, you can reduce your exposure to plastics over your lifetime. While 40-Day Home Detox provides a methodical "clean sweep" to "Household Repeat Offenders" as I write about in my book A to Z of D-Toxing: The Ultimate Guide To Reducing Our Toxic Exposures, the D-Tox Academy shares more bite-sized changes that you can make while providing you access to a comprehensive detox library of practical ways to detox popular sources of toxic exposures.
However, everyone would benefit from continuing to work on the four tips below to reduce their exposure to plastics.
- Use a nontoxic reusable water bottle. Reusing a nontoxic stainless steel or glass water bottle as often as possible can reduce your exposure to plastics in your drinking water. Click here to purchase a nontoxic stainless steel Ruan Living water bottle.
- Avoid foods and snacks that are stored or wrapped in plastics. Pre-packaged foods can expose you to plastics, PFAS chemicals, and other chemicals that are used as preservatives, sugars, flavors, and textures. Instead, eat whole food, preferably organic; and homemade meals, snacks, and drinks so that you can optimize the quality of ingredients.
- Bring a reusable shopping tote to avoid plastic (or other) shopping bags. Reducing our demand for plastic bags will help our planet's burden of plastics, which will ultimately help protect the purity of our food supply and drinking water.
- Invest in a reverse osmosis water filtration system that also remineralizes water. Reverse osmosis water filtration systems remove many things—so many things that you'll want a stage that remineralizes the water so that the water is balanced. Members of the D-Tox Academy: learn which water filtration system I use in Pillar 2 Home Detox 101 Water Detox section (click on the link).
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