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Microplastics in the Environment and Inside the Human Body

Linda Crampton has an honors degree in biology. She has taught high school biology, chemistry, and physics as well as middle school science.

Plastic waste on Midway Atoll, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Plastic waste on Midway Atoll, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Concerns About Microplastics

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that are less than five millimetres long. They are created by the degradation of larger items and are also deliberately produced for use in manufacturing. Like much of our waste, they often collect in bodies of water when they are created or discarded. Some people are very concerned about their effects on aquatic life, and rightly so. There is another area of concern that is worrying researchers, however: the effects of microplastics on humans.

Particles of microplastic have been found in samples of tap water from around the globe and in some of the seafood and sea salt that we eat. They are also present in certain cosmetics, toiletries, and toothpaste. In at least some parts of the world, they are even present in the air that we breathe.

Scientists know that microplastic particles are entering our bodies. They also know that the particles transport molecules that are harmful to humans at certain concentrations. They haven’t yet discovered whether the microplastic is affecting our health, however. Answering this question could be urgent. As the particles continue to collect in the environment and enter our bodies, we might be heading for a range of health problems.

In many places, single-use plastic water bottles are a major source of pollution.

In many places, single-use plastic water bottles are a major source of pollution.

Importance and Composition of Plastic

Plastics are abundant today. In many parts of the world, they are ubiquitous. They are very useful in many aspects of our lives, including medical treatments. While it's true that some plastics could be avoided, others are the best material that is currently available for a particular function.

Some researchers are trying to create safer plastics. The creation of a plastic or a substitute material that has many applications and is also safe for the environment if it's discarded is a challenge. Nevertheless, the effort is very important. Plastics are so common in our lives that eliminating their use seems impossible. I think that recycling and reusing them and the use of safer substitutions whenever possible is vital, however.

Plastics are made of polymers. These are long chains consisting of repeating molecules known as monomers. Polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene are common examples of plastics. Chemicals are added to the material to improve properties such as flexibility or durability. The additives are released into the environment as a plastic degrades.

Determining how much plastic waste enters the ocean each year is a difficult task, but according to the United Nations the amount is at least eight million tons. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) says that microplastic particles are less than 5 mm long. Some organizations say that the particles must be less than 1 mm long in order to be called microplastic.

How Do Microplastics Form?

Degradation of Plastic Waste

Plastic debris in the ocean slowly breaks down into microplastic particles due to the action of ultraviolet light from the sun, reaction with oxygen, and physical degradation by wave and current action. Fishing gear, buoys, and domestic and industrial waste contribute to the debris.

Fibres From Clothes

Another common source of microplastic in the ocean is clothing made from synthetic fibres. Tiny fibres of polyester and acrylic (both a type of plastic) are shed when clothing is washed. The facilities that treat wastewater are often unable to remove the fibres, allowing them to reach the ocean.


Microplastic is also added directly to the ocean in the form of pellets or granules known as nurdles. Nurdles are widely used by manufacturers to make plastic items. They are about the size of a lentil, very lightweight, and not easily noticed if they escape from where they belong. They enter the ocean either from the ships that are transporting them or from where they are stored on land. Nurdles are mistaken as prey by some marine animals and are eaten.


Microbeads are plastic particles that are about about a millimetre in diameter. They are added to products to increase their abrasive and cleaning ability. They are found in some toothpastes, soaps, facial cleansers, and facial scrubs, for example.

In 2020, researchers from the University of Manchester reported a significant discovery at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. They found up to 1.9 million pieces of plastic per square metre. They say that ocean currents are concentrating the particles in particular areas.

Granules used to make plastic items

Granules used to make plastic items

It is estimated that about 80% of marine debris originates as land-based trash and the remaining 20% is attributed to at-sea intentional or accidental disposal or loss of goods and waste.

— EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)

Contamination of Foods, Drinks, and Air

Microplastics have been found in some of the foods and drinks that we ingest. This may not mean that they are present in these items everywhere in the world, but on the other hand contamination of the items may be widespread. More testing is needed.

Microplastic particles have been found in the tissues of fish and shellfish species that are sold in stores and markets. A 2018 study of 39 brands of salt produced in North and South America, Europe, Africa, or Asia found that 36 of them were contaminated by the particles.

In 2017, samples of tap water from different countries were analyzed. 83% of the samples contained plastic fibres. A smaller study in Ireland found microplastic in tap water from that country. In 2014, a pair of scientists found that microplastic particles were present in all of the twenty-four samples of German beers that they tested. The material existed in the form of grains, fragments, and fibres.

Researchers in France, Germany, and China have discovered microplastic particles in the air over their countries. At the end of 2019, British scientists reported that microplastic pollution is "raining down" on people in four UK cities, especially in London. In that city, most of the pollution is in the form of acrylic fibres that have probably come from clothing.

The health impacts of breathing or consuming the tiny plastic particles are unknown, and experts say urgent research is needed to assess the risks.

— Damian Carrington, Environmental Editor of the online edition of The Guardian newspaper

Leaching and Sorption of Chemicals

It was once thought that although large pieces of plastic debris could be dangerous to aquatic life due to ingestion or entanglement, plastic didn't interact chemically with either sea or fresh water. Scientists now know that this isn't true.

Plastics slowly degrade into microplastic particles. Chemicals added to plastics to improve their properties leach (escape) into the water as this happens. Leached chemicals attach to microplastic particles by a process called sorption.

Some of the leached and sorbed chemicals are listed below. They are thought to be dangerous for us, but this may be true only when they are sufficiently concentrated.

  • PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are synthetic chemicals that are no longer made in the United States. They were banned in 1979. They used to be added to plastics and are still present in the environment. They can produce a number of harmful health effects and are classified as a probable carcinogen (cancer causer).
  • PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are persistent chemicals that don't break down easily, like PCBs. They are added to some plastics. Researchers suspect that some of them are carcinogens.
  • Flame retardants, chemicals that act as hormone disrupters, and pesticides are also carried by microplastic particles. Each of these can produce a range of harmful effects, which depend on the identity of the chemical.

PCBs do not readily break down once in the environment. They can remain for long periods cycling between air, water and soil. PCBs can be carried long distances and have been found in snow and sea water in areas far from where they were released into the environment.

— Environmental Protection Agency

Is Microplastic Dangerous to Humans?

Researchers know that for many of us—and perhaps for most of us—microplastic particles are present in the water that we drink, at least some of the food that we eat, and perhaps in the air that we breathe. What they don't yet know is whether the particles or their chemical cargo are hurting us.

There are a number of possible fates for the microplastics that enter our body. Some are listed below. We won't know whether they are true until scientists perform appropriate research.

  • Microplastic particles may leave our bodies without being absorbed or without releasing their chemical cargo.
  • They may be absorbed but may be quickly broken down or eliminated before they have time to harm us.
  • They may be absorbed but then encapsulated so that they don't hurt the body.
  • The particles or the chemicals that they carry may not be sufficiently concentrated to hurt us even if they are absorbed.
  • The particles or their cargo may be hurting us.
  • The particles may not be hurting us yet, but they may do so if they become more concentrated.

Some researchers speculate that microplastics consisting of nanoarticles may be more dangerous for us than ones consisting of larger particles. Nanoparticles are 1 to 100 nm in length. A nanometre (nm) is a billionth of a metre or a millionth of a millimetre. In studies in other areas of chemistry, scientists have discovered that nanoparticles of a substance often behave differently in living things than particles with a larger size. Nanoparticles are small enough to enter cells.

Microplastics from an artificial football field

Microplastics from an artificial football field

Photo A above shows artificial turf on top of ground rubber tire (GRT) in a football field; most tires are made of synthetic rubber that is actually a type of plastic. Photo B shows microplastic washed off the field by rain.

A Present Problem and Potential Ones

While we don't need to panic about the existence of microplastic particles in our body, I think they are a concern. A major problem associated with the particles is that we may not be able to avoid their entrance into the body. We have to drink water and breathe air. Eating fish and other types of seafood is not as essential, but the animals are nutritious foods. Adding sea salt to our food is optional, but some types of processed food already contain it.

The increasing number of news reports about the ways in which microplastics are entering our body is troubling. If scientists eventually discover that the particles are causing health disorders—or if they eventually do so if their concentration increases—it may be too late to avoid the problems. Hopefully, any problems that are discovered or that develop in the future will be quickly solved.


  • Microplastics found in supermarket fish and shellfish from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)
  • Salt around the world is contaminated by plastic from The Weather Channel
  • Plastic fibres found in tap water around the world from The Guardian newspaper
  • German beers are contaminated by microplastics from the ScienceDaily news service
  • Information about polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) Fact Sheet from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
  • "Influence of Various Aqueous Conditions on Additives Releasing From, and Pollutants Sorbing to, Microplastic Debris" from NOAA (National Atmospheric and Atmospheric Association)
  • "UN Declares War on Ocean Plastic" from the United Nations
  • Microplastic pollution is raining down on city dwellers from The Guardian
  • High microplastic concentration found on ocean floor from the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)
  • Microplastics are everywhere—but are they harmful?” from Nature
  • Microplastic news from (This science news site gathers press releases about microplastics and lists them in order of date, starting with the most recent article.)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

Question: Are you aware of any side effects from microbeads?

Answer: Unfortunately, as far as I know, researchers haven't yet discovered whether microbeads and other forms of microplastic can hurt us. This could be a problem. The particles are collecting in the environment and entering our body. We need to know their effects. Perhaps they aren't hurting us, but on the other hand, they may be.

Microbeads in toothpaste can get stuck in our gums. Once again, though, the effects of the microbeads are unknown. Some oral health experts worry that the beads can harm the gums; others point out that this hasn't been proven.

Question: Which toothpastes do not contain microbeads?

Answer: You would have to do some Internet research related to where you live to find the answer to this question. In Canada, microbeads in toiletries were banned on July 1st, 2018, with a couple of exceptions, as mentioned in my answer to the previous question. You could visit the website of your favorite toothpaste or email the company if you want to be certain that the version of their product that is sold in your country no longer contains microbeads.

Question: How can we avoid contamination from plastics in our foods and drinking water? How is the longterm exposure likely to affect us?

Answer: It's hard to avoid microplastics because plastic items are ubiquitous. The computer, tablet, or mobile device that you used to type your question probably contains plastic, and so do many pens used for writing. Eventually, these items are discarded. It's probably best to avoid drinking water from plastic bottles, however, since many of these containers have been found to contain a higher level of microplastics than the equivalent amount of tap water.

We don't know how microplastics affect us. I don't think we need to panic about the situation, but it is a concern.

Question: Can we potentially stop microplastics from entering rivers and oceans? Would filters work? Or would the filters be unreliable?

Answer: The problem is that microplastic particles are so tiny and—especially in the ocean—so widespread. Removing the particles is a huge challenge. Some water treatment plants can remove the bigger particles, but many are too tiny for them to trap. The particles could be a major problem if we discover that they have harmful effects. Someone may eventually create a special filter or another device that can remove them, though. I hope this is the case.

Question: Surely the government cannot ignore the threat to health from plastics entering our bodies?

Answer: I can't speak for other countries, but in Canada (where I live) the government has expressed some interest in microplastics this year. The interest is in relation to protecting the marine environment rather than what is happening in our bodies, but it's still good.

The first link below says that the government has funded research on microplastics and other ocean contaminants. The research is designed to look at the impact of contaminants on aquatic species. The second link from the Government of Canada says that as of July 1st, 2018, the manufacture and import of toiletries containing microbeads was prohibited. The sale of toiletries containing microbeads was also prohibited unless the items were natural health products or non-prescription drugs. These will be prohibited as of July 1st, 2019.

Question: How long do microplastics take to break down?

Answer: The answer isn’t known. The time almost certainly depends on the chemical composition of the microplastic particles and the local conditions in the water. Scientists have performed experiments with some types of microplastic particles to see how fast they break down, but it’s unknown if their discoveries relate to conditions in real life. Another problem is that the use of plastic is increasing, so more microplastic is being created.

Question: Has the government been made aware of all the information that you have and how are they dealing with it?

Answer: I expect the government knows about the situation since it's been publicized by researchers. The problem is that governments have limited funds. They are unlikely to act on a very difficult problem to solve when there is no direct evidence that microplastics are hurting us.

© 2017 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 09, 2020:

Hi, Peggy. Yes, plastic has become a big problem. It's going to require a major effort to deal with the situation.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 09, 2020:

Your article brings awareness to this problem of plastics entering the food we eat, the air we breathe, etc. Plastics are everywhere. I hope research continues to discover the best methods to handle this mountain of plastics that we have created.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 28, 2019:

Thanks for the visit and the comment, Scott. I think that plastic in all its forms is a problem that we need to solve as soon as possible

promisem on July 28, 2019:

I have been well aware of the problem of everyday plastic products in our environment, but I was totally unaware of microplastics. Thanks for opening my eyes on an important subject!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 01, 2018:

Hi, Kay. Yes, the situation is worrying, although we don't yet know whether or how seriously microplastics are affecting us. The problem of microplastics may or may not be an important one for our bodies. At the moment, it seems that the best action that we can take is to reduce plastic pollution. If enough people do this, at least it will reduce the amount of new microplastic that's made.

kay on November 01, 2018:

I have always drunk water, that is the only drink I have.

How have plastics been allowed to remain in our drinking water? What effect is this having? It is apaulling that plastic is in everything, including our bodies. Why is there no substancial trial of NEW materials before we are exposed to them!! Information is that there is no way to remove plastics from the environment or our bodies and we can only wait to find out what the longterm effects will be. That will prove disastrous unless solutions can be found that can be guaranteed to not cause even more problems. This is not the first time we have introduced KILLER CHEMICALS into the environment That we have no control over

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 04, 2018:

Thank you, Kent. I wish more people were aware of microplastics and their potential problems.

Shawn Weissman from Boston, MA on June 04, 2018:

Extremely informative. More people need to know this so thank you for raising awareness!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 13, 2018:

Thank you very much for the comment and for sharing your opinion, Val. I appreciate your visit.

ValKaras on January 13, 2018:

Linda---While it certainly has to be addressed and dealt with as an environmental idiocy on the part of ruthless polluters---as far as its effect on our health goes, let me offer my layman modest opinion.

We have liver and kidneys to flush out all crap invading our bodies. We have minds which, when positive, keep our immune system at its best performance. We have a spirit which, when strong, keeps our bodies strong and resilient. We also have overall hygienic, personal and social practices which by far outdo those from any earlier era in history.

So I think that, for all disadvantages that mankind has been facing so far, including a virtual absence of medical care, we should be able to biochemically resist almost anything short of a nuclear radiation.

Overly optimistic? I have to be, it helps my resistance to assaults of human stupidity, including this plastic crap in our environment.

However, a fine and very informative article you wrote again, my friend, which makes a great addition to your already impressive writer's opus.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 29, 2017:

I agree, Colin—the plastic problem is scary. It's good that you remove plastic waste in your part of the world. I think that we all need to think about the waste and its effects.

colin powell from march on November 29, 2017:

This is a scary ongoing development. I never realised the extent of contamination in the sea and our food chain via our water systems. I often clear up plastics in the Fenlands. The problem is that plastics do seem to take a long time to break down or degenerate. I think some scientists explored the possibility of an enzyme back in the 70s decade. To speed up the breakdown. However, they feared it getting too aggressive and out of control. Especially if it got into city electrical systems etc. Maybe with all the new nanotechnology that is developing, better ideas might come about to break down plastics. Even segregation among the huge litter heaps and the recycle plants etc.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 16, 2017:

Hi, Mary. Yes, I think it's definitely time to be more conscious of environmental problems and their effects on living things. Thanks for commenting.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 16, 2017:

Am glad you addressed this in more detail here. It is time to be more conscious of the life of our environment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 03, 2017:

Yes, I agree. It's sad when products that we like to use in our daily lives can harm the environment.

Dianna Mendez on October 02, 2017:

I didn't realize they could be found in the products we use daily. Seems as if someone could find a better way of producing the products we use on our bodies.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 19, 2017:

I agree, Peggy. It is worrying. Plastics are so popular today.

Peggy Woods on September 19, 2017:

This is definitely concerning since plastics are just about everywhere these days.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 17, 2017:

Thanks, Devika. I agree—the environment is slowly being destroyed. The situation is sad and worrying.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on September 17, 2017:

Interesting and important information! The environment is being destroyed slowly and most people don't see how they are treating our earth. Your hub needs more comments.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 17, 2017:

Thank you very much, Nadine. Unfortunately, stores in my area still hand out plastic bags, too. The bigger stores have collection bins so that the bags can be recycled, but depositing the bags in the bins may be a step that some people are unwilling to take.

Nadine May from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa on September 17, 2017:

Wow, that is an informative but at the same time an alarming article. In South Africa, they still hand out ( for little money) plasic bags at food chains in shopping malls. We never buy them but use our own material bags, but plastic is all over used in Townships. Our oceans are littered with them. Can we still save our planet from further destruction? Articles like this will wake people up! Well done.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 15, 2017:

Hi, Larry. Yes, the situation is disturbing. I think it's definitely something that we need to think about.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 15, 2017:

I think you've raised a good point. It probably would be safer to assume that microplastics are harmful and do something about them now, even though the problem will likely be challenging to solve. Thanks for the comment.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on September 15, 2017:

Educational and disturbing.

Leah Kennedy-Jangraw from Massachusetts on September 15, 2017:

Interesting hub, but scary. I feel like we should just assume that cumulatively these microplastics are doing harm. That is a negative outlook but it seems most of these manufactured plastics, when exposure is large, are troublesome so it isn't too far a leap to figure the degradation products will also be trouble.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 14, 2017:

Hi, Nell. Yes, I think we all need to help solve the plastic problem. Organizations and researchers could be a big help, too. Thank you very much for the comment.

Nell Rose from England on September 14, 2017:

As always a great and thoughtful hub. its funny how we all know these days our plastic is bad for us and the environment, but still we expect others to do something about it, hopefully one day it will all be different.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 14, 2017:

Hi, Heidi. I wish everyone would follow a reduce, reuse, refuse policy! I think it's an excellent plan. Thank you for comment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 14, 2017:

Yes, you're right, Bill. Plastics are too useful to eliminate. We need to create plastics that are safer for the environment, though, or deal with our current versions in a different way. Thanks for the visit.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on September 14, 2017:

This is why I don't use those "microbead" products! I'm also keenly aware of the impact that plastics can have on our world, especially the oceans. Truly sad. I'm hoping that we'll find plastic-like materials that can leave less of a footprint. Until then, adopting a reduce, reuse, refuse policy is probably best. Thanks for sharing about this important issue!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 14, 2017:

I'm trying to imagine our society today without plastics! How many products which we depend on have plastics, and how many would disappear if we outlawed all plastics?

I do not say that because I am in favor of plastics because I am not. Just thinking out loud, I guess...we need to find a solution to this problem...great information here, Linda!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 13, 2017:

Thank you very much for the comment and for sharing the interesting information about your father, Jackie. I think his płan to avoid drinking anything from a plastic container was a great idea.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on September 13, 2017:

I hope there will be a solution to this soon. It is already so horrible. I cannot help but think of my father so many decades ago being so afraid of plastic. He was an uneducated man but he seemed to have a second sense and he would never drink anything from plastic which always stuck with me and made me more cautious of it too and I am so glad.

Wonderful informative article as always.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 13, 2017:

Hi, Dora, Yes, it is a troubling situation. I hope a solution is found and that any harm is minimized.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 13, 2017:

The situation you describe is scary! One wonders why manufactures are allowed to introduce dangerous substances into our daily living routines even after they know they're dangerous. Thanks for the alert!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 13, 2017:

Thank you for the comment, Princess. It's nice to meet you. The way in which we treat our environment is definitely sad. I hope widespread improvements are made. They are certainly needed.

Princess from PH on September 13, 2017:

sad what we did to the environment...

great hub!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 13, 2017:

Thanks, Larry. I appreciate your visit. I remember when drinks were supplied in glass bottles, too. There's one dairy in my area which has gone back to delivering milk in bottles, which are returnable. I wish more companies would follow their example.

Larry W. Fish on September 13, 2017:

I love reading your articles, Linda. They are a bundle of information. This one really makes someone think about the possible consequences. I will be 69 in a couple of weeks and remember all of the drinks being in glass bottles when I was a young boy. I used to fill up the basket on my bicycle and return the glass bottles for a refund. I remember well when the plastic bottles came into being. I never imagined that now it seems like plastic is in every facet of our lives.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 12, 2017:

Thank you for the visit, nicci. I hope that appropriate action is taken, too.

nicci from ukraine on September 12, 2017:

Hello Linda, your article is very enlightening. I liked reading it. I hope appropriate action is taken before it's too late.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 12, 2017:

Hi, Flourish. Yes, I think our love of plastic has created big problems that may be hard to solve. The situation certainly is troubling. Thank you very much for the comment.

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 12, 2017:

This is really troubling. So many uses for plastic are utterly unnecessary and I think ultimately we've compromised our health and the environment in the name of the almighty dollar and convenience. Excellent article! I gen this goes to Owlcation I will be back to Flip it.