Southeast Asian countries top global intake of microplastics. What does this mean to our health?

Studies have shown that microplastics can trigger inflammatory responses and affect immune function.

A rather unsettling news comes our way: Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and, yes, the Philippines ingest the most microplastics among 109 countries, a study by Cornell University researchers revealed. 

Among the three, our Indonesian neighbors are the top consumers of microplastics. They have been found to ingest about 15g of these particles per month—the equivalent of three credit cards—with the majority coming from aquatic sources such as fish and seafood.

Microplastics are plastic particles smaller than 5mm.
Photo by Soren Funk. All photos from Unsplash

Meanwhile, China, Mongolia, and the United Kingdom lead the list of countries that inhale the most microplastic, according to the same research published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology on April 24. 

What are microplastics?

We’ve been hearing this word with increased frequency lately, but what exactly are microplastics? As the name implies, these are tiny plastic particles smaller than 5mm. They can be fibers, fragments or granules created when plastic products break down, or shed by synthetic textiles, according to a report on The Straits Times. The improper handling of plastic pellets, the raw ingredients in plastic manufacturing, can cause these particles to enter the environment.

As plastic consumption increases in developing countries such as the Philippines, common waste management methods, such as open dumping in landfills, prove to be even more inadequate in handling the increasing volume of discarded plastics, resulting in more than 30,000 tons of mismanaged waste yearly, the paper’s authors noted.

Human beings indirectly ingest plastic when eating fish or seafood. Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen

When waste is not managed properly, plastic from landfills can end up in nearby bodies of water when it rains or floods. Microplastics then are commonly ingested by phytoplankton and zooplankton, which fish and aquatic animals feed on. Human beings, in turn, indirectly ingest plastic when eating fish or seafood.

But the means by which microplastics can enter our body doesn’t end there. Even worse, microplastics can also be inhaled. The study also found that residents of China and Mongolia inhaled the most microplastics among the 109 countries studied, breathing in more than 2.8 million particles per month.

Dust-like airborne microplastics usually come from the abrasion of plastic materials, such as tires, the study explained. Synthetic textiles can also release microplastics into the air during production, or when they are washed or worn.

What are the effects of microplastics to our body?

For obvious reasons, microplastics are an environmental issue. These particles are pollutants that adversely affect marine health, mountains, and even polar regions. They are literally everywhere, found in even the unlikeliest of places like Antarctic snow and the clouds hovering above Mt. Fuji.

Microplastics, however, are also a growing health concern. Studies in animals have shown that ingesting microplastics “may have toxic effects on the lining of intestines, inducing inflammatory responses and causing intestinal swelling and ulcerations,” according to Dr. Lim Lee Guan, a gastroenterologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore, as quoted in the same The Straits Times article. 

Microplastics have been found even in Antarctic snow. Photo by Cassie Matias

Ingesting microplastics also affects the “diversity and composition of microorganisms” in our gut, added Dr. Lim.

This could then affect the digestive and immune functions of the intestines. There is still limited evidence, however, to prove microplastics are adversely impacting human health, he clarified. “Nevertheless, the consensus among all stakeholders is that plastics do not belong in the environment, and steps need to be taken to reduce exposure.”

A recent study published in the journal Toxicological Sciences on May 15 found microplastics and nanoplastics in human testicles, raising concerns about their possible effects on reproductive health. Nanoplastics are even much smaller than microplastics. These plastic particles are under one micrometer or one-70th the width of a human hair, making them small enough to enter the bloodstream.

The researchers from the University of New Mexico studied 47 canine and 23 human testicles and found microplastic pollution in every sample, with polyethylene, used in plastic bags and bottles, being the most prevalent plastic in both human and canine tissues.

Microplastics have even invaded canine testicles. Photo by Marcus Wallis

The testicles were collected from autopsies of men aged 16 to 88 and from nearly 50 dogs after they were neutered. The human testicles had been preserved so their sperm count could not be measured, according to an article on the research by The Guardian

The sperm count in the dogs’ testes, meanwhile, could be assessed and was lower in samples with higher contamination with polyvinyl chloride plastic or PVC. The study revealed a correlation but further research is needed to prove microplastics cause sperm counts to fall.

Sperm counts in men have been falling for decades, as per the same article. Chemical pollution such as pesticides is considered the culprit by many studies. But microplastics have also recently been discovered in human blood and even breast milk. The impact on our health is as yet unknown but microplastics have been shown to cause damage to human cells in the laboratory. 

If microplastics find their way inside in the arteries, this may ramp up the risks of cardiovascular disease. Photo by Robina Weermejier

Moreover, these tiny particles could lodge themselves in tissues and can lead to inflammation. In March, doctors raised the alarm on possible life-threatening effects after finding a “substantially raised risk of stroke, heart attack and earlier death” in people whose blood vessels were contaminated with microscopic plastics.

If microplastics find their way inside in the arteries, this may increase the risks of cardiovascular disease. An analysis of artery-clogging plaques in 257 patients found that the presence of these microplastics was associated with a roughly quadrupled risk of heart attack, stroke or death, researchers report in the New England Journal of Medicine

But whether or not these particles can actually harm people remains unanswered. The study placed the particles “at the scene of the crime,” said Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar, a cardiovascular researcher at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, but he clarified “there’s not enough evidence for an indictment just yet.” He cautioned though that results are “certainly cause for concern.”

How can we reduce our exposure to microplastics?

While we can’t directly control most of our exposure to microplastics, an article in The New York Times outlined practical ways on how we can reduce our exposure in different aspects of our lives. 

When it comes to food or eating, avoiding highly processed meals can help reduce the possibility of ingesting microplastics. As per the report, researchers said this could be because highly processed foods have more contact with plastic food production equipment.

Plastic packaging could extend shelf life and prevent contamination, but it can also generate small amounts of microplastics. Photo by Elena Rabkina

Moreover, while plastic packaging could extend shelf life and prevent contamination, it can also “generate small amounts of microplastics.” Swapping plastic utensils, kitchenware, or containers with wooden or glass ones can help reduce our exposure. 

With plastic being often used to manufacture synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon used in clothes, bedding, and even furniture, these can be worn down by friction, heating, lighting and general wear and tear, causing them to shed microplastic fibers. Some experts then 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 has also been found out by scientists to reduce microplastic levels in household dust. Photo by No Revisions

Vacuuming has also been found out by scientists to reduce microplastic levels in household dust, so this might be the perfect excuse to reward yourself with that shiny vacuum cleaner you’ve been eyeing for months. Vacuums with a HEPA filter, specifically, can remove airborne particles with a size of 0.3 microns. Using a damp cloth instead of a duster could also help prevent indoor microplastic spread.

Practical measures which could help minimize microplastic shedding from clothes include doing the laundry less frequently and line drying instead of using the dryer. Photo from PlanetCare

You can also be more mindful when doing your laundry. An estimated 60 percent of the material used for clothes is plastic-based, as per the same article on The New York Times. Washing may cause clothing to shed tiny plastic fibers that could end up in sewage treatment plants, then into rivers and oceans, and end up back in your drinking water. You can also inhale these plastic particles from your clothes.

You can try to capture microplastics with a laundry bag, ball or special filter that you can attach to your washing machine, but there isn’t sufficient evidence on how effective those are.

Other practical measures that can help minimize microplastic shedding from your clothes include doing the laundry less frequently, maximizing your washing machine’s load limit, and line drying instead of using the dryer.

Associate Editor

The new lifestyle.