Microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Our Daily Diet of Plastic

It’s not part of anyone’s dietary guidelines, but we’re consuming it nonetheless. Plastic is all around us – in the form of microparticles. We drink them, eat them, and breathe them. They’re in our food and our stools. By 2050, the world’s oceans will be filled with more plastic than fish.

How Much?

A new study in Environmental Science and Technology analyzed data from 26 reports to get a handle on how much of these microparticles an average American consumes. Based on diet alone, Kieran Cox and colleagues estimate that we consume between 39,000 and 52,000 microplastic particles every year. That number goes up as high as 123,000 when you take into account the particles we’re inhaling.

Yes, that’s right. We are not just dumping plastics into the ocean. They’re in the air we breathe – in meaningful amounts. You can reduce your exposure a bit. For instance, drinking bottled water exclusively can account for 90,000 microparticles in your annual diet of plastic.

If microparticles are too abstract for you, another analysis can give it to you in grams. Researchers from the University of Newcastle say that average consumption amounts to about 5 grams of plastic per week per person.

So What?

The impact on health from all these microplastics is largely unknown. Our bodies can absorb them. They can release chemicals that have various effects, such as an immune response or an impact on endocrine function. Endocrine disruptors from plastics are potentially an important contributor to the growing prevalence of obesity.

The problem with microplastics may be big, but our objective understanding of it is limited. We’re only scratching the surface of the scientific evidence needed to understand the magnitude of what we’re facing.

What is clear, though, is the vast quantity of plastic waste accumulating in our environment. It shows up as huge patches of plastic in the sea. It also breaks down into microparticles, but it doesn’t go away. We eat it, drink it, and breathe it. We ignore it at our peril – for the planet and for future generations.

Click here for the study by Cox et al; here, here, and here for further perspective.

Microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, photograph © Will Parson / Chesapeake Bay Program / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


June 18, 2019

2 Responses to “Our Daily Diet of Plastic”

  1. June 18, 2019 at 7:58 am, Mary-Jo said:

    If less individualized bottled water and other drinks could find an alternative to plastic to deliver to consumers, this could lower the plastics, significantly, I would think. I’ve often thought if only bottling and packaging companies could use more ‘natural’ materials to make liquid ‘vessels’ and to package foods, like banana leaves or coconut rind (people drink coconut water from coconuts in South America) — maybe this could help, environmentally, as well as physiologically. I would like to see a study comparing clear plastics vs. tetrapak cartons to see if one is ‘better’ than the other re: endocrine disruptors. It’s admittedly curious that obesity has skyrocketed during the same time the use of plastics to deliver so much of our food supply increased.

  2. June 19, 2019 at 6:00 am, Ted said:

    Additional news after this post: More Plastic Showing Up in Processed Foods. Renata Sago reports yet another recall of processed food contaminated with unsafe amounts of plastic and asks why we’re seeing more of this.