How does plastic pollution affect humans?

How are we exposed to plastic? How does it affect human health?

How does plastic affect humans?

By Alice Peace (Sustainable Travel Writer at Discoveny)

Table of Contents

Every year, up to 14 million tons (14 000 000 000 kg) of plastic flood our oceans.

Sunlight, wind and waves eventually break this plastic down into microplastics; smaller bits of plastic that look a lot like food. These tiny pieces of plastic are consumed by marine animals, from plankton to whales, filling their stomachs and eventually starving them.

Plastic is often treated with harmful chemicals. Although invisible, these also have an impact. Free-floating pollutants and heavy metals wash into our oceans and can get into our food supply.

We already know that ocean plastic is damaging to marine life.

But what about us?

How are we exposed to plastic, and how does plastic pollution affect human health?

1. We consume microplastics in our seafood

how does plastic pollution affect humans

Studying the impact of microplastic on humans is difficult; it would be quite unethical to ask people to consume microplastics for experiments. 

Nevertheless, scientists remain concerned about the human health impacts of ocean plastic.

Microplastics have been found in 114 marine species, of which around one third are consumed by humans.

They are so widespread that humans consume approximately five grams a week. That’s the same as eating a credit card every week. 

In the long-term, microplastics can degrade and fragment into even smaller nanoplastics.

These tiny particles are so small that they are invisible. Alarmingly, these tiny plastics can penetrate cells and move into human tissues and organs. The full effect of this is unknown, however, it’s unlikely to be positive.

2. We are consumed to plastic chemicals through packaging

How often do you think about the packaging your food is wrapped in?

Plastic packaging often contains chemicals that may add colour, increase stability in UV light or make the packaging stiffer or softer. 

These can leach into their surroundings. For example, the stiffener bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is an endocrine disruptor and may affect hormone function. Research has linked low-dose BPA exposure to cardiovascular and metabolic problems. 

Microplastics can also be found in bottled water.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) published shocking research in 2018 in which 90% of bottled water contained nanoplastics. 

3. We absorb plastic through our clothes

how does plastic get into the ocean

Have you ever thought about what your clothes are made from? 

Over 70% of clothes produced annually are made from plastic fibres such as polyester, acrylic, rayon, and nylon.

These synthetic fibres release microplastics into the air when worn, which can be breathed in. They also release microplastics into the water supply when washed. 

Additionally, many synthetic fabrics are treated with toxic chemicals during production.

Our skin is the largest organ in our bodies and can absorb up to 60% of the substances it has contact with. 

We aren’t choking on plastic bags like marine birds or turtles, so it’s hard to comprehend the volume of toxic additives that we come into contact with daily. 

The chemicals and additives in plastic are considered extremely harmful for people and the environment.

Scientists don’t understand the true magnitude of the effect of plastic pollution on human health but it is unlikely to be positive.

We’re all responsible for reducing our plastic and keeping our oceans clean...

We’re all responsible for reducing our plastic and keeping our oceans clean.

Making little changes, such as buying zero-waste groceries, using a guppy-friend bag to wash your clothes, and swapping to the OCG search engine can help keep plastic out of the seas.