The Problem with Plastic? It Might Be in Our Food

If there is one thing that can be said about plastics, it is that they can be found everywhere you look. Everything from trash bags to kitchen ware to traffic cones are made from this material. Given their ubiquitous presence in modern society, a recent report regarding plastic contamination in America’s food supply should raise some serious concerns. 

Too Small to See

In a 2019 study, researchers at Canada’s University of Victoria sought to measure the amount of plastics Americans consume. To do this, the authors examined prior research on the amount of microplastic content of various foods. In addition, they also reviewed governmental dietary guidelines, enabling them to estimate the intake of microplastics amongst the US population. 

What they found doesn’t make for pleasant reading; assuming an American man consumes the recommended amounts of seafood, sugars, salt and beer, the researchers estimate that over 52,000 pieces of microplastic will enter his digestive system on an annual basis. Due to lower food intake, the figure for women was tallied at 41,000. 

Perhaps more alarmingly, yearly consumption levels for children were also worryingly high. Boys ingested 46,000 pieces of microplastic each year; for girls, this figure stood at 39,000.

Finding the Source

Given the above numbers, the logical question that arises is just where is all this plastic coming from? The answer varies depending on the product; some foods are contaminated when they are packaged in food processing plants. Conversely, some researchers theorize that fish and molluscs swallow microplastics while swimming around in water. When they are caught and eaten by humans, the plastics enter a human host. 

One item singled out in particular by the authors was bottled water. According to the study, adults who drink strictly bottled water may be putting an extra 75,000 to 127,000 tiny plastic pieces into their bodies. In contrast, adults who stick to tap water will only ingest just 3000 to 6000 microplastic pieces on a yearly basis. 

The study authors caution that their estimated figures are just that ‒ estimates. Since the microplastic levels in such fare as meat, dairy, cereals and vegetables is not yet known, they could not be included into the report’s calculations. Finally, the research team acknowledges that the health-related impact of microplastics on human health is not yet fully understood. 
The report was published in the June 18, 2019 issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

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