If you are reading this blog on an electronic device, wearing clothing or footwear, or holding a “to go” drink in your hand, there is an extremely high probability that you are touching plastic right now. The invention of plastic revolutionized modern society and now is quite literally everywhere you look. But our addiction to plastic and the cheap single use packaging it creates now circles the planet and infiltrates our bodies.

The Problem of Plastic Waste

Plastic is found all over the planet and plastic waste is estimated to triple by 2040. Information showing how plastic moves and ends up in the world’s most remote places is still developing. A 2020 study revealed that bigger plastic pieces break down until they are extremely small and then are transported long distances through soil and wind1. These particles have been found in places such as in the desert sands of Iran2, in freshly fallen snow in Antarctica3 and on top of Mount Everest4.

In the past 20 years, plastic has shown up on the inside of living beings, too. Scientists have found tiny particles of plastic, called microplastics, in the bodies of fish5, birds and sea turtles, within human blood6 and within the placenta7. This year, scientists identified microplastics deep within the lungs of living people for the first time.

Microplastics and Lung Health

There is some indication that breathing plastic particles and associated chemicals causes damage to the lungs, and scientists are working to learn what long term exposure could mean. Studies from the last few decades have consistently shown plastic particles found in the lung specimens of patients with cancer and chronic lung disease. Workers exposed to plastic fibers can have lung problems and reduced lung capacity, perhaps due to damage caused by inflammation8. Scientists also know that the chemicals that make up these plastics are toxic to humans at high enough concentrations. Scientists are still attempting to learn what long term exposure could mean for health—a process that could take a very long time9.

But people do not need to wait for evidence of lung health harm to affect policy changes before taking practical steps to avoid exposure and reduce consumption.

It is not realistic to avoid all plastic particles. While research continues, experts suggest people with a high risk of exposure, such as construction workers or people who work in factories where plastic is made or used, should wear a good mask, wash clothing after work, and generally avoid places where dust is visible. People can reduce their use of plastic by opting to use paper or cloth bags for groceries and by avoiding single use plastic straws, cups, and other food containers.

Policy in the International Community

Among the international community, policy action work is beginning as well. The United Nations Environment Assembly is attempting to mitigate potential impacts of plastic pollution through a new treaty. In passing a resolution called “End Plastic Pollution: Towards An Internationally Legally Binding Instrument,” over 190 nations agreed to start working together on the issue of plastic production and disposal.10 A working group will begin work later in 2022 to develop an international legally binding agreement by 2024. Using stakeholder meetings covering a range of countries and priorities, the document should address the full lifecycle of plastics and include information on the design of reusable and recyclable products. The resulting document would then open for signatures by member countries, with each country taking the same document back home for domestic-based implementation. In the United States, this would include passage of the principles by Congress and promulgation of laws and regulations within federal agencies to implement the articles.

  1. Multiscale dynamics of colloidal deposition and erosion in porous media. Navid Bizmark, Joanna Schneider, Rodney Priestley. Science Advances. 2020 46 (6) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abc2530
  2. Microplastics in the Lut and Kavir Deserts, Iran Sajjad Abbasi, Andrew Turner, Mohammad Hoseini, and Hoda Amiri Environmental Science & Technology 2021 55 (9), 5993-6000 DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.1c00615
  3. Microplastics found in freshly fallen Antarctic snow for the first time. Corlett, E., The Guardian. June 7, 2022
  4. Reaching New Heights in Plastic Pollution—Preliminary Findings of Microplastics on Mount Everest. Imogen Napper, Bede Davies, Heather Clifford. One Earth. 2020 5 (3) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2020.10.020
  5. Plastic trash flowing into the seas will nearly triple by 2040 without drastic action. Laura Parker. National Geographic. 2020
    Microplastic accumulation in the gastrointestinal tracts in birds of prey in central Florida, USA, Julia Carlin, Casey Craig, Samantha Little, Melinda Donnelly, David Fox, Lei Zhai, Linda Walters, Environmental Pollution, Volume (2020) 264.
  6. Discovery and quantification of plastic particle pollution in human blood. Heather A. Leslie, Martin J.M. van Velzen, Sicco H. Brandsma, A. Dick Vethaak, Juan J. Garcia-Vallejo, Marja H. Lamoree, Environment International, (2022) 163, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2022.107199.
  7. Plasticenta: First evidence of microplastics in human placenta. Antonio Ragusa, Elisabetta Giorgini Environment International, Volume 146, (2021), 106274, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2020.106274.
  8. A Detailed Review Study on Potential Effects of Microplastics and Additives of Concern on Human Health. Campanale C, Massarelli C, Savino I, Locaputo V, Uricchio VF. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Feb 13;17(4):1212. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17041212.
  9. An emerging class of air pollutants: Potential effects of microplastics to respiratory human health? Amato-Lourenço LF, Dos Santos Galvão L, de Weger LA, Hiemstra PS, Vijver MG, Mauad T. Sci Total Environ. 2020 Dec 20;749:141676. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.
    United Nations Environment Programme ; United Nations Environmental Programme (02/03/2022) found at: https://wedocs.unep.org/handle/20.500.11822/38525;jsessionid=2DDA7E5502CF773B0A3864A152C1F497
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