Microplastics: The tiny pieces of concern


This is the decade of being conscious about the environment specifically of the harm which we have been doing to it for decades. One of the many problems is the plastic problem. The current world is highly dependent on the plastic industry. Though the major cause of headaches is with their long lifespan ranging from hundreds to thousands of years, another matter of concern is the microplastics. Herein, lies forward a brief account on the microplastics. It is an unavoidable piece of knowledge affecting all of mankind.

Plastic is a term used to call a particular group of synthetic materials– the polymers which are long-chain compounds, mostly hydrocarbons. They became an instant hit among consumers due to them being light, durable, flexible, and doesn’t get spoiled by liquids.  Micro means in the micron or micrometer range. Microplastics are plastics having a chain length of 1µm-5mm. 1µm means one micrometer.

In 2015, the global production of plastic was 388 million tonnes. A lot of buzzes has been going around regarding the penetration of plastics into our food chain and ultimately ending up in our physiological systems.  The effects on humans are still under study. However, recently it has been revealed that they cause a localized immune response. 

In the current era, there isn’t a sector that doesn’t use plastics. Plastic furniture became an instant hit due to their lightweight and them being cheaper. Plastic bodied electronics are more desired by consumers for the same reason since it’s low in weight compared to metal or glass bodied ones. No other sector consumes plastic than the packaging sector does. It constitutes up to 36 of the total plastic consumption followed by textiles, construction, consumer, transportation, and others. (https://www.dw.com/en/the-plastics-issue-we-seem-to-ignore/a-47307954

The degradation of plastics such as polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, and polyethylene terephthalate into smaller pieces is inevitable leading to microplastics. In this article, we will learn a lit bit about microplastics. The references to a few interesting open access articles and sources are provided to give a further read. 

There are two types of microplastics – the primary ones are already present in products such as exfoliants, toothpaste, soaps, etc. whereas the secondary ones are generated by degradation of the parent plastics. Their impact on the environment is being felt. They have been found in several water bodies such as Laurentian Great Lakes, Persian Gulf, and sub-tropical gyres. (https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics)

Microplastics are generated by the breakdown of bigger plastics into smaller fragments. Tearing or opening plastic packages as a probable cause has been well explored in this research work. Most of our food items, beverages, online delivery products, and several other daily consumption products come wrapped in plastic packaging. It is indeed astonishing to know that the simple act of opening these packages produce microplastics that eventually enter into our bodies. Even the frequent act of opening a plastic bottle of drinking water does create those tiny bits of plastics. 

(Microplastics generated when opening plastic packaging, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-61146-4)

Microplastics in humans

Plastics are broken down into microplastics through heat and sunlight which end up as pollutants in the soil or oceans. Sea fishes constitute a major source of good fatty acids and other nutrients. They are also a source of lean protein and hence is consumed by many people throughout the world. Microplastics do enter our body through the consumption of seafood. Research shows that an average human consumes nearly ten thousand microplastics annually through ingesting seafood.

Cosmetic industries also use microplastics in their products. The most common example is that of exfoliants. 80% of your favorite body or face scrubs that are used to remove dead cells do contain microplastics. It is estimated that 5 mL of these products can contain thousands to nearly one hundred thousand of microplastic particles.

With a wide range of options for eating, the modern urban human does end up ordering food from restaurants at least twice a week. Any food item, be it snacks, dairy products, or frozen vegetables or meat do come wrapped in plastic.  This is the other way through which microplastics enter the human body.

The next inevitable question comes as to the effects of the accumulation of these foreign particles into the human body. Much debate is going on the toxicity of MPs to us. This recent study suggests that polystyrene microplastic particles in higher concentrations might interfere with the immune system or their direct contact with certain cells can be harmful. Several published research articles are available related to the toxicity of microplastics in humans.

(Potential toxicity of polystyrene microplastic particles, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-64464-9)

We can ingest or even inhale microplastics. This section deals with the findings of a research article on this second route. Several harmful chemical compounds or metals can adhere to these airborne MP particles and enter into our bodies having adverse health effects. This is mostly observed in urban areas due to increased air pollution. Polyester is a synthetic polymer mostly used in manufacturing garments. In this study, this was the MP found mostly in the indoor air. Paints using acrylic polymers are another potential source of MPs since most paints use heavy metal which is known for their cytotoxicity.

(Simulating human exposure to indoor airborne microplastics using a Breathing Thermal Manikin, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-45054-w)

Microplastic in commercial salts

Another interesting piece of research work is linked below. Herein, they took commercial salts from 8 nations to evaluate the presence of MPs in them. 1 to 10MPs/Kg of salt was found in 7 of them. The size of MPs was around 0.5 microns and they constituted nearly 40% of contaminants found. Polypropylene and polyethylene were the ones mostly found. MPs in the form of fragments were found mostly followed by filaments and films.

(The presence of microplastics in commercial salts from different countries, Sci. Rep. 7, 46173; doi: 10.1038/srep46173 (2017))

Plastics contain several toxic chemicals that are used in their manufacturing processes such as anti-microbial coatings, metals, and halogenated flame retardants. Plastics in addition to these chemicals have an impact on human health such as inflammation, cell death, cell suicides, or are dangerous for our genes leading to mutations. These are linked to autoimmune disorders and heart diseases. Since the soil and water bodies are being polluted with such chemicals, it leads to an indirect route of plastics entering into human bodies.


Thereby, it is all the more important to reduce our daily use of plastics. Personally, I have switched to stainless steel water bottles. I use all steel utensils and prefer to store food in steel containers and not plastic ones. It is better to eat out than getting a takeaway. Minor changes to our lives might help in the longer run. Stay safe and conscious of the world around yourself.

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