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Microplastics with a Mega Impact

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Years ago, at a campground in the jungle of Borneo, I drank boiling water out of the same single-use plastic bottle for a week. It may sound silly, but while new plastic water bottles cost money, hot water was free—and as a fresh university graduate with precious few dollars in my pocket, saving a few Malaysian <ringgit> seemed like a good idea at the time. But I now know that in doing this, I exposed myself to microplastics, about which the full impacts on human health are only starting to be understood.

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What are microplastics?

Plastic is everywhere, and microplastics are lingering consequences of this ubiquity. Often defined as plastic particles up to 5 mm in dimension, they’re present in everything from food, water, and air to personal care products and even plants.

Described by journalist Tammana Begum as “one of the greatest manmade disasters of our time,” they’ve been found even in remote places with no human inhabitants, including the Mariana Trench and the Arctic.

Mini-micros

Nanoplastics, a term for plastic particles far smaller in size than microplastics, are considered by some researchers to be a separate category due to their different interactions with other materials and the human body.   

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Microplastics and our health

Microplastics can be ingested, inhaled, or absorbed; and groundbreaking research has recently identified microplastics in the human bloodstream.

While researchers still need to work out precisely what this means for public health, studies suggest that exposing human cells to chemicals in microplastics can

  • impair antioxidant function
  • disrupt thyroid hormones
  • alter energy levels
  • impair the immune system
  • increase the risk of obesity

The fact that microplastics are taken up in the bloodstream is unwelcome news, as it’s plausible that they may then be transported to our organs. Microplastics have already been shown to cross the human placenta, and studies on animals suggest they can also accumulate in the liver, kidney, and gut.

Are you cleansing with microplastics?

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, a typical exfoliating shower gel can contain as much microplastic in its cleansing formula as it does in its packaging.   

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Toward a plastic-free future

The Government of Canada is aware of the issue of plastic pollution and recently undertook a scientific review to examine where further research on the subject is needed. It has additionally proposed a ban on six single-use plastic items, including checkout bags and cutlery, and announced its intent to set a minimum requirement for recycled content in certain plastic items.

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Act now

Many federal government proposals on plastic pollution are subject to public consultation. Talk to qualified scientists and medical experts about the changes they think are needed, and keep an eye out for new announcements to make sure you have your say on the action.

There are practical steps you can take to protect yourself, and our environment, while more systemic changes are underway.

  • Invest in a laundry filter, which catches much of the microplastics that clothing—even those labelled “natural”—shed in fibre form, causing damage to oceans and ecosystems.
  • Avoid some of the most worrisome chemicals, such as phthalates, found in products such as plastic food wrap, vinyl flooring, and personal care products, and bisphenols, found in harder plastics such as juice bottles and containers.
  • Cut out single-use or unnecessary plastics.

Microplastics may be all around us, but we don’t have to resign ourselves to their mega-impact.

What caregivers need to know

Children are disproportionately exposed to microplastics because they’re closer to the ground; more likely to put things in their mouths; and eat, breathe, and drink more per unit of body weight than adults do. While it’s largely impossible to totally prevent children from ingesting plastic, there are practical steps you can take. Avoid plastic packaging Use paper bags when possible and avoid food that comes wrapped in plastic. Clean regularly  Microplastics can be found in dust, so clean your home regularly and thoroughly. Choose products carefully  Avoid personal care products such as toothpastes, soaps, and shampoos that contain microplastic additives such as phthalates. Build safely  If you’re building or renovating a home, choose building materials that are free of PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which contains toxic chemicals that can leach out or evaporate into the air over time. Share good habits  Model and share smart choices when it comes to plastic, such as avoiding putting plastic items in one’s mouth and using stainless steel, glass, or porcelain containers when making meals, particularly for hot food or liquids.

Shop smart

Shopping at your local natural health retailer is a great way to find personal care and household products in safe, plastic-free packaging. Talk to one of their experts to find out which items are best for you and your family.

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