How to minimize your exposure to microplastics

Furniture, clothing and food packaging can all shed tiny particles that can end up in our bodies. (Ryan Jenq/The New York Times)

Matthew Campen, a toxicologist at the University of New Mexico, wasn’t surprised when his team found microplastics in human testicles during a new study. The tiny particles had already been found in human breast milk, lungs and blood. At this point, Campen said, he expects to find them in every part of the body.

The particles are so small that it’s easy to ingest or inhale them. Scientists still aren’t sure how that might affect human health, but some early research points to cause for concern. One 2021 study found that patients with inflammatory bowel disease had more microplastics in their feces than healthy subjects, while another recent paper reported that people with microplastics in their blood vessels had an increased risk of heart complications.

We can’t directly control many of the microplastics we’re exposed to — the materials used in car tires, food manufacturing, paint and many other products can all create plastic particles. But if you’re worried about microplastics, there are simple steps to take to minimize your exposure somewhat, experts say.

“You’re not going to get to zero, but you can reduce your levels,” said Tracey Woodruff, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies how chemicals affect health.

Curbing Microplastics in the Kitchen

Microplastics are produced when plastic items degrade or are intentionally added to certain products, like microbeads in body scrubs. When they get into water and soil, microplastics enter the food chain.

There are several ways to reduce your exposure through food, including by avoiding highly processed meals. One study of 16 protein types found that while each contained microplastics, highly processed products like chicken nuggets contained the most per gram of meat. The researchers said that could be because highly processed foods have more contact with plastic food-production equipment.

“The less processed, the less plastic,” said Christy Tyler, a professor of environmental science at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

While plastic packaging extends shelf life and acts as a barrier to contamination, it can also generate small amounts of microplastics that may be shed into your food.

More research is needed to know if washing food can reduce these microplastics. But Woodruff said she had gradually replaced her plastic containers with glass ones. Swapping out plastic cutting boards with wooden ones could also reduce your exposure.

Heat, including from dishwashers and microwaves, can also cause plastic products to break down.

In one 2020 study, researchers prepared baby formula in bottles made of polypropylene, a soft type of plastic, and found that the bottles released microplastics when warmed. As the temperature of water increased, the concentration of microplastics did, too. The study authors recommended preparing powdered formula in a glass container and letting it cool before transferring it into a bottle. Similarly, research has suggested that the hot water you use to steep tea might release particles from plastic tea bags; experts recommend using paper tea bags or loose-leaf tea instead.

Water treatment plants can get rid of some, but not all, of the microplastics in tap water. Research suggests microplastic levels are typically higher in bottled water than in tap water. This contamination might partly result from the bottling process, the plastic bottles themselves and even opening and closing the cap.

Woodruff said she would use a reusable water bottle to avoid this added exposure. There are also home water filters certified to reduce microplastics.

Limiting Exposure From Furniture, Clothing and More

Plastic is often used to manufacture clothes, bedding and furniture. Synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon can be worn down by friction, heating, lighting and general wear and tear, causing them to shed microplastic fibers. Once inhaled, these microplastics can move through the body, entering organs and the bloodstream.

Some experts recommend keeping items made of plastic, such as a sofa upholstered in polypropylene fabric, out of direct sunlight, or choosing options that aren’t made of plastic.

Vacuuming can also make a difference. Scientists have found that […]

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