We have long known that plastic is a huge problem for our planet. Who can forget photos of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the giant island of plastic and other debris roughly equivalent to the size of two and a half Texas’s, floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But research is increasingly showing that plastic is not only bad for the environment, it also poses potentially serious problems for our health.
Fast forward nearly a century after plastic’s revolutionary invention and new research is showing that plastic, while incredibly convenient, isn’t so miraculous after all. Today, microplastics are filling our oceans, our air, our drinking water… and even our bodies.
Here’s what you need to know about what the scientists know, what they are still figuring out, and what you can do to protect yourself.
Plastic Is Everywhere…Including Inside You
Over the past few years, some troubling reports have started coming out that show how closely plastic has become intertwined in our lives and bodies. Regardless of your own use of plastic, the stuff is everywhere. Plastic has invaded our oceans (“There are 21,000 pieces of plastic in the ocean for each person on Earth,” a recent Washington Post headline read), our air (including high in the mountains where the air was previously considered “clean”), our tap water, and even the fresh snow in Antarctica.
So it’s probably no surprise that microplastics have also seeped into our bodies. Over the past three years, some of the biggest findings include:
Blood: A study found that 77% of people tested had microplastics in their blood. The most common type found is the same used in water bottles, with the plastic associated with food packaging coming in second. The study’s author Dick Vethaak said, “It is certainly reasonable to be concerned. The particles are there and are transported throughout the body.”
Lungs: Another study took samples from 13 people undergoing surgery and found 11 of them had microplastics in their lungs. Twelve different types of plastic were found, types that could also be traced to those found in water bottles, plastic packaging, clothing, and more everyday items. Dr. Laura Sadofsky, lead author of the study, said, “It also shows that they are in the lower parts of the lung. Lung airways are very narrow so no one thought they could possibly get there, but they clearly have.”
Poop: Stool samples were taken from eight people from eight different countries who ate their normal diet that had been wrapped in plastic and drank out of plastic bottles for a week. At least nine types of plastic were found in each, and all of them had parts identified with plastic bottles.
The research is new enough that scientists haven’t determined with certainty whether or not the microplastics found in humans are doing us harm. More research needs to be done in this area as well as repeated studies with bigger sample sizes. But what we do know is that studies on animals and fish have shown that microplastics inside their bodies have caused issues ranging from gut damage, fertility issues, and liver stress.
Plastic Is No Friend to Your Hormones
While scientists have yet to discover the health implications of the more recent findings of plastic in our bodies, what is known is that plastic contains two chemicals that are major hormone disruptors:
BPA is known as a xenoestrogen because its particles mimic the size and shape of natural estrogen. When you are exposed to BPA, your body reads these particles as estrogen and adjusts its own production of the hormone. This throws your actual estrogen levels out of balance and can lead to issues with fertility, increased cancer risk, and problems in young children. While buying BPA-free plastic is a good first step, studies have shown that a majority of BPA-free plastic still leaches chemicals into food and water. So, the better option is to go plastic-free.
Phthalates, on the other hand, decrease testosterone. These chemicals are found in plastics as well as synthetic fragrances (which is one reason you should choose fragrance-free) and things like shower curtains. Other than impacting fertility, they are also believed to have an effect on childhood behavior and development.
A Few Things You Can Start to Do About It
No matter how good you are at recycling, being responsible with your plastic is unfortunately not the solution. Not only does 91% of all the plastic end up in landfills, but the damage it potentially does to us happens well before that — while it’s living in our homes. The best solution for both our bodies and the planet is to try to cut down on plastic as much as possible. A few steps you can take to get started on your plastic-free life are:
Invest in kitchenware made of other materials: Particularly when it comes to kitchen items, try to buy non-plastic goods whenever possible. Glass Tupperware and mason jars are great for storing leftovers and other foodstuffs. Bamboo makes for great cutting boards and cooking utensils. And stainless steel works well for things like mixing bowls. They may be a little more expensive at first, but they’ll last a long time and, bonus points, many glassware items are safe to put in the oven and dishwasher.
At the very least, keep your plastic away from heat: Even BPA-free plastic can release chemicals into your food. This becomes worse when it’s exposed to heat. So if you do use plastic kitchenware or Tupperware, never put it in the microwave and opt to hand wash rather than run it through the dishwasher.
Put those totes to good use: If you’re like me, you’ve ended up with approximately one million free tote bags over the years. Throw a few in your car or keep a stack by your door and take them with you on errands rather than throwing your purchases in plastic bags.
Invest in good water bottles and to-go coffee cups: Most of us guzzle water and coffee on the regular. If you can do that out of bottles and cups that aren’t made of plastic, you’re one step closer to making sure that microplastics aren’t sneaking into your body along with your H2O and caffeine. Same goes for straws.
Eat fresh and organic over frozen and packaged: Not only do fresh, organic foods have less hormone-disrupting pesticides, but they are also not generally packaged in plastic as opposed to frozen meals and other foodstuffs.
Use refillable cleaning bottles: Rather than tossing out your cleaning bottles every time you’re done with them, buy nicer glass bottles and buy the refill size of your favorite cleaning products. In addition to reducing your plastic use, after your initial investment in the higher quality bottles, you’ll save money by buying bulk.
Choose your skincare wisely: Not only do you want to make sure that the skincare lotions and serums you use are free of all hormone-disrupting chemicals, but also that they are packaged in plastic alternatives like glass. Veracity skincare, is 100% free of endocrine disrupting chemicals, and is packaged in bottles and jars made from 100% glass that can be recycled after use. Plastic is only used when it is the only option to dispense and seal products.
Given the growing attention being paid to plastic and other hormone disruptors, more research is sure to come out over the next decade. The good news is, while scientists are busy researching, more products are also debuting every day that offer safe and clean alternatives for nearly everything in our lives.