You wake up and brush your teeth with a plastic toothbrush; wash your face with soap stored in a plastic bottle; head to the kitchen to get your plastic milk bag. Then you peel the plastic wrapper from your fruits for breakfast. You have fish for lunch that may have microplastics in it and your water is not free of it either.
There’s no escaping plastic in our day-to-day life. For more context, a liter of water in a plastic bottle contains 44 microplastic particles; a plate of mussels contains about 90; a kilogram of salt over 600. A study found that at least 70,000 plastic particles enter our bodies every year just from the dust that settles on our food.
Apart from the plastic containers and bags which most of us try to avoid, microplastics have also entered our agricultural systems through our soil and water transport system. There are also microplastics in the air namely polyethylene, polystyrene and polyethylene terephthalate particles and fibers, mostly coming from the roads. It is found that 65 million microplastic particles are released into the water everyday after being treated by the sewage treatment plant.
The effects of these microplastics on our bodies is not easily observable. It’s not like gluten intolerance that triggers an immediate feedback loop and you feel sick right away. It works in disguise without us being able to pinpoint the damages. Microplastics have entered our blood and may not just affect you but have an intergenerational influence through epigenetic changes.
Microplastics in the human body: An unresolved mystery
Microplastics refer to plastic fragments and particles with a diameter of less than 5mm. They are called nanoplastics when the diameter is less than 1 μm. Microplastics have been spotted in several parts of the human body: the human lung, maternal and fetal placental tissues, human breast milk and in human blood. These particles are so tiny that they can cross membranes and get pretty much everywhere in the body.
Toxicological studies on microplastics are increasing rapidly. Experiments show that the exposure to microplastics induces a variety of toxic effects, including oxidative stress, metabolic disorder, immune response, neurotoxicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity.
There are about 10,000 chemicals that are used in the manufacturing of plastic itself. Moreover, microplastics can act as a ‘temporary sponge’ that absorbs chemicals from the environment and later releases them inside an organism. Their health impacts have been studied to some extent through animal experiments.
One of the most reliable ways to discover the health effects of a substance is through long-term placebo controlled trials. But that’s a challenge as microplastics have infiltrated so much of our lives that there may be nobody left to form a control group. Therefore, we are not aware of the full scope of how microplastics have been damaging our bodies.
Nothing is safe: BPA v/s non-BPA
You must have seen the classic tupperware or baby bottles that are marketed as being BPA (bisphenol A) free. BPA is a synthetic chemical found in several plastics and plastic additives such as canned tomatoes, payment receipts, eye wear and water supply pipes. BPA can mimic estrogen to interact with estrogen receptors and lead to changes in cell proliferation, cell death, or migration and thereby, contribute to cancer development and progression.
While most claim that BPA free plastics are relatively safe, a lot of recent research concludes otherwise. These plastics have other chemicals such as phthalates and BPS (Bisphenol S), which is another form of bisphenol that in some cases has more estrogenic activity than BPA itself. Even if the estrogenic activity is low-level, it has been associated with diseases like diabetes, heart disease, infertility and cancer.
A paper that appeared in Environmental Health Perspectives, found that almost all commercially available plastics, including the ones that are marketed as being BPA free leach synthetic estrogens. They interfere with the endocrine system that is responsible for the production and distribution of hormones. They tested over 500 widely available plastic products and found that all of them showed estrogen activity that can cause early puberty in females, reduced sperm counts, obesity, liver problems, ADHD and more. One of the researchers said that “Pick a disease, literally pick a disease,” and you’ll see a connection with estrogenic activity.
Another study found that men with higher concentrations of phthalates in their urine have lower sperm counts and poor sperm motility. It also inhibited the masculinisation of young animals. Some vitro (studies of biological properties that are done in a test tube) studies show overwhelming evidence that exposure to estrogen-mimicking chemicals change the structure and function of human cell types.
Detoxification from microplastics
Complete evacuation of BPS, BPA and other plastic residues from your body is a bit unrealistic. However, there’s still a lot you can do to arm your body with the best health to enhance the natural detoxification pathways.
- First and foremost, make sure that your gut is healthy and happy. A healthy gut microbiome will break down toxins that need to be eliminated from the body. Sufficient fiber intake helps bind toxins in the gut for removal through the stool.
- Make sure there are reduced heavy metals and other toxins in your body as well. Heavy metals inhibit the body’s ability to detoxify other chemicals from the body such as microplastics.
- The human body has an efficient detoxification system, mostly located in the liver. Liver detoxification or bio-transformation is a three-step process that removes drugs and toxins from the body. Phase 1 detox involves the process of oxidation, reduction and hydrolysis. Phase II detox involves conjugation, glucuronidation, sulfation, or methylation and Phase III involves elimination.
- Diuretic foods such as celery, cucumber and parsley may also help in the cleansing process. They increase the amount of urine you produce and help your body get rid of excess water and toxins along with that.
- Exercise and sauna use promotes sweating, which also helps clear toxins from the body.
Lastly, make sure that you follow a healthy diet catering to your body’s needs. The body can handle a remarkable toxic load when the diet is right. Till we are able to figure out how to reverse all the damage that has been done, the best we can do is take precautions and treat your body like a temple!