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Our Bodies Are Becoming Plastic

It was a sad day in October 2015 when researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) announced they had detected plastic litter on the surface of Arctic waters.1 Greenland sharks and seabirds living in the area were already known to be eating the debris,2 but the appearance of 31 pieces of floating debris in an otherwise largely pristine environment painted a disturbing picture of pollution problems that will only get worse if the amounts of litter entering the oceans aren’t reduced.

With plastics now entering the farthest reaches of the globe, what does that mean for the environments where these pollutants are known to accumulate? Mismanaged waste is particularly problematic in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines, which together make up the top five countries for plastic pollution.3 In the U.S., one of the top waste-generating countries, littering is a major issue, especially in the form of single-use plastics, like soda bottles, drinking straws and potato chip bags.

According to environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy, some plastic products persist for so long, even in salty ocean water, that they’ll still be recognizable after 400 years.4 However, an equally alarming problem is the plastics that do get broken down into tiny pieces. Microplastic particles, which are less than 5 millimeters long, are literally clouding the oceans in spots.

Carried along with the ocean’s currents, swirling gyres of “plastic smog”5 now cover about 40 percent of the world’s ocean surfaces.6They’re being eaten by fish and other marine life — that is well-known. But only recently did researchers take the logical next step to determine that it’s not only marine life ingesting plastic — you probably are too.

94 Percent of US Tap Water Contains Plastic Fibers

Research commissioned by media outlet Orb revealed alarming data about plastic pollution in tap water, with 83 percent of samples tested worldwide coming back as contaminated. In the U.S., 94 percent of tap water samples were found to contain plastic — the most out of all the locations tested. According to Orb:7

“Fibers in tap water … are both a discovery and a marker — a visceral sign of how far plastic has penetrated human life and human anatomy. We can't see the long-chain molecules of pollutants like polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, even if they do reside in more than 98 percent of the population. But when fibers are filtered in a laboratory and enlarged by a microscope, the contamination becomes real.

The first studies into the health effects of microscopic plastics on humans are only just now beginning; there’s no telling if or when governments might establish a ‘safe’ threshold for plastic in water and food. Even farther away are studies of human exposure to nanoscale plastic particles, plastic measured in the millionths of a millimeter.”

Orb found, for example, 16 fibers in tap water taken at the visitor’s center in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., along with fibers in samples taken from Trump Tower in New York. Plastic fibers were also found in water taken from Indonesia, India, Ecuador, Uganda, England and Lebanon.

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