Your Health Checkup: How Much Plastic Are You Ingesting?

“Your Health Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive. 

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Would you swallow your credit card? Not just one, but one credit card each week. Sounds crazy, no? But a new study is suggesting that we ingest five grams of plastic each week, which, by weight, is equivalent to the amount of plastic found in a single credit card. The idea is that nano- and microplastics — plastic particles smaller than five millimeters in size — are contaminating our food, water, and even the air we breathe.

The study from the University of Newcastle in Australia has concluded that we swallow an average of two thousand microplastic particles a week. The particles come from multiple sources such as artificial clothes fibers, some toothpastes, drinks like water and beer, and foods such as fish and shellfish that ingest plastic rubbish floating in the sea. Eating shellfish is said to be particularly worrisome since we consume the entire fish, including its digestive system, after it has spent its life in polluted seas. Importantly, the plastic may act like a sponge and concentrate other toxins found in the environment. The problem is global, but regional variations in the amount of contamination exist.

Estimates are that we ingest from 39,000 to 52,000 particles annually, depending on age and sex. The number increases to 74,000 and 121,000 when inhalation is also included. Very troubling is that I could be consuming almost 2,000 microplastic particles each week in my drinking water, bottled or tap, with twice as much plastic in United States waters than in European tap water. Most scary — since I drink only bottled water — is that I may be ingesting an additional 90,000 particles annually, compared to 4,000 microplastics for those who only drink tap water (Cox et al. Environ. Sci. Technol.201953127068-7074).

Estimates are that more than 330 million metric tons of plastic are produced annually around the world, an amount expected to triple over the next thirty years (). Almost eight million tons end up as trash in the ocean each year.

What can we do about it? Banning certain items made of plastic, such as straws, plastic bottles, cups, and shopping bags, can help. The United Kingdom has banned the manufacture of all products containing microbeads, one of the world’s toughest regulations. The U.S., Canada and other countries have also called for a ban on microbeads. Almost 200 countries have signed a U.N. resolution to eliminate plastic pollution in the sea.

Before I panic and throw out my entire bottled water supply, we need to stop and put it all into perspective. While there is no question that we can and should reduce the amount of plastic being produced, and that we should clean up our food and water supplies and especially the sea around us to protect marine life as well as ourselves, one may question the accuracy of some of the published data and the estimates given. For example, air contamination doesn’t take into consideration our body’s natural defenses to filter the air we breathe.

Most importantly, no clear health risk from plastic contamination has yet been established. That doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist, just that it hasn’t been found yet.

I often think about the line from the movie, The Graduate, when Mr. McGuire, a friend of Mrs. Robinson, corrals Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) at a party and says, “Just one word, Ben. Are you listening? Plastics.” He was right. Plastics have been a critically important development. But it’s now time to consider the environment, consider our health and that of our co-inhabitants, and wind them down as much as possible.

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