Salt, pepper, and a dash of plastic. The recipe may not call for it, but a new study published in Environmental Pollution says you’re probably consuming more than 100 tiny pieces of plastic particles – called microplastics -- with every meal. That rounds out to be an annual average of nearly 70,000 “potentially dangerous” plastic fibers.
Here’s the grossest part: the plastic probably doesn’t come from the food or cooking environment, but rather household dust (along with thousands of bacteria and fungi). Researchers placed Petri dishes with sticky dust traps next to dinner plates at three separate homes during meal times. They found up to 14 pieces of plastic in each Petri after 20 minutes. Accounting for the larger size of dinner plates, an estimated 114 plastic fibers probably fall on your plate at each meal, totaling between 13,713 and 68,415 each year.
Microplastics are plastic fragments broken down from larger items and come from all sorts of things, including synthetic fabrics, carpets, car tires, and clothing. All of these things contain tiny bits of plastic, which is shed into the environment as they break down.
Scientists initially set out to compare how many plastic fibers are found in mussels versus what the average household eats only to find each mussel contains less than two microplastics. People who eat shellfish can expect to consume around 100 plastic particles each year.
“These results may be surprising to some people who may expect the plastic fibers in seafood to be higher than those in household dust,” said study author Dr Ted Henry in a statement. “We do not know where these fibers come from, but it is likely to be inside the home and the wider environment.”
Microplastics are found on every continent and in nearly every body of water. They make their way into the bellies of deep-sea fish and up the marine food chain affecting all sorts of marine mammals, who can't digest it. These bits sit in animals' stomachs eventually blocking the digestive tract, most often killing the animal.
The United Nations has warned plastic poses a serious threat to human health after a study found more than a quarter of fish markets in Indonesia and California contain plastic particles. Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) contained in some plastics is also a known toxic carcinogen, linked to cancers, birth defects, immune system problems, and childhood developmental issues. Health-bisphenol-A (BPA) used in plastic water bottles – which could contain thousands of microplastics – may also disrupt hormones.
While the researchers say more information is needed to fully understand the implications of consuming microplastics, we do know that exposure to certain plastics can have some serious health effects.