According to a new report by the WHO, all people around the world ingest microplastics in one way or another. Some sources state that the report concludes it is not dangerous to ingest microplastics, but the conclusion is not as simple and more nuanced.
The WHO estimates that the bulk of microplastics we ingest go directly through our digestive system and out with the faeces without being absorbed into our bodies. However, the organisation also points out that there is a risk of the smallest particles of microplastics being absorbed into our organs.
The WHO warn that microplastics can carry harmful bacteria which in turn can transmit to our organs and make us sick. In addition, the report points out that the absorbed microplastics can help make bacteria resistant to antibiotics.
Preliminary studies indicate that ingesting microplastics is harmless
The challenge of establishing what the health risks are is caused by the fact that the WHO does not know what limit values should be surpassed before it can be said that microplastics constitute a health risk. So even though the organisation states that it can be dangerous to ingest microplastics, it does not necessarily mean that the current amounts of microplastics being ingested by humans constitute a health risk.
In other words, the report does not conclude that microplastics constitute a health risk, but merely that microplastics occur in drinking water throughout the world and that it is not yet known what the consequences of this are. However, the first studies conducted on this indicate that the amount of microplastics we currently absorb do not pose a health risk.
It is only within the past year that microplastics were found for the first time in human faeces so there is obviously not much research done in this area yet. The WHO points out that more research is needed in this area before anything can be said conclusively.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic that are less than five millimetres in length. Most microplastics are tiny and cannot even be seen with the naked eye. It is most often transported around by sea currents and can therefore be found everywhere in the world.
Microplastics come from many different places. When plastic somehow ends up in the sea or in nature, water and sunlight slowly breaks it down into smaller and smaller parts. However, the plastic does not disappear or dissolve, but simply becomes several smaller parts.
Humans can both ingest microplastics through drinking water as stated in this report, but also through the consumption of animal foods. This is because microplastics are mistaken for food by some marine animals in the sea because it resembles plankton. So, when we catch and eat seafood, there is also a risk of us consuming microplastics this way.
Despite not knowing if it is dangerous, the WHO recommends that all countries should prioritise having microplastics and bacteria removed from all drinking water. The ultimate recommendation is that we should stop polluting the water systems with plastic on a global scale. This requires a lot of work. Currently, eight million tons of plastic are discharged into the ocean every year, which corresponds to 19 tons per minute.