Aqua’s iconic pop song “Barbie Girl” tells us that “life in plastic is awesome,” but it’s safe to say that in real life, most people disagree. Unfortunately, we are rapidly filling our planet and ourselves with more and more plastic.
The first synthetic plastic was just developed 115 years ago in 1907. Since then, humanity has been producing more and more plastic and using it for pretty much everything and everyone. In 1950, only two million tons of plastic were produced. Fast forward to 2019 and that number jumps to amazing levels 368 million tons!
To make matters worse, plastic products hardly make sense in the long run. It is estimated that approx 40% of all plastics are only used as packaging and disposed of within one month. Plastic is also non-biodegradable, which means that plastic waste left floating in forests, on sidewalks and in the ocean isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Finally those big pieces of plastic break up into smaller piecesspread and further pollute the surrounding areas.
The problem of plastic pollution is well documented, but did you know that your own body is also being bombarded with plastic? Corresponding a recent studythe average modern adult ingests around 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles per year.
These tiny microplastic particles and even smaller plastic nanoparticles can find their way into the human body through various sources. Seafood, table salt, both tap and bottled water and even the air in your homeare just some of the ways plastics enter our bodies.
Well, remarkable new research just published in the scientific journal environmental science and technology has uncovered another potential source of covert plastic ingestion that has so far gone largely unnoticed. Read on to find out more!
Nylon cooking bags, plastic cups and trillions of nanoparticles
Study authors from American Chemical Society report releasing the plastics found in both nylon cooking bags and plastic-lined paper cups trillion of nanoparticles into every liter of water they touch.
A nylon chef’s bag can make life in the kitchen a lot easier. Great for keeping food moist in the oven or simplifying slow cooker recipes, countless chefs rely on food grade nylons.
Similarly, plastic-lined mugs, which are typically designed for one-time use, are super handy when you need some java on the go. The plastic covering the cups keeps your coffee hot while stopping potentially messy leaks.
These culinary tricks are certainly convenient, but are they worth possibly ingesting countless plastic nanoparticles? First, let’s get a better sense of how tiny these nanoparticles really are:
“In our study, we measured nanoplastics smaller than 100 nm (nanometers) from very common materials. As a reference for the size of these particles, 1000 particles with a diameter of 100 nm fit over a human hair. So these are very small particles,” says the study’s lead author, Dr. Christopher D Zangmeister.
Safe by FDA standards
Many will likely feel insecure about using these products in the future. But believe it or not, the puzzling truth is that the FDA says trillions of nanoparticles are okay for human consumption.
“The FDA measures the release of food and beverage contact materials by mass, regardless of the state of that material. The material released could be a dissolved small molecular polymer chain that forms the plastic backbone, or a plastic particle,” explains Zangmeister.
“The materials released were below the FDA’s mass limit for food-grade nylon, and we do not know if the state of the material released will affect the health of the person consuming the food or beverage,” he continues.
The inconvenient truth is that we still don’t know that much about nanoparticles released from plastics. The possible health effects on humans are largely a mystery. These nanoparticles are theoretically small enough to enter our cells and possibly interfere with cell function – but this has yet to be confirmed.
Both room temperature and hot water were poured into some low-density polyethylene-lined paper cups and nylon slow-cooker bags (from various retailers).
When the slow cooker was kept hot for a full hour, 35 trillion plastic nanoparticles dispersed into the liter of water in each bag. Pour hot water into 12-ounce mugs for just 20 minutes “leached out” 5.1 trillion plastic nanoparticles per liter.
Room temperature water also resulted in the release of nanoparticles, but not nearly as many.
According to the research team’s calculations, a person would need to drink 13 cups of hot water from a plastic-lined mug to ingest the equivalent of one nanoplastic particle for every seven cells in their body. Consuming half a liter of hot water from a boiling bag would have the same effect.
Additionally, nylon bags and single-use coffee cups are far from the only sources of nanoparticles released from plastic.
“We focused on food-grade nylon and nanoplastics used in single-use coffee cups, but we also looked at other common materials. We have also detected similar particles in many other commonly used materials such as plastic bags, plastic pipes and containers,” comments Zangmeister.
At present, modern science is still a long way from determining the health effects of these nanoparticles on humans when ingested. In fact, study authors concede that we’re not even technically ready to address this big question.
“We are currently trying to find out which materials release particles, their composition, size ranges and concentrations in the water. In parallel, we determine their role, if any, in human health. It will take a lot of extra work to understand their effect. Factors such as particle size and chemical composition may play a role,” says Zangmeister.
Don’t bother trying to avoid plastic nanoparticles completely. It’s a stupid assignment. We are literally surrounded by plastic all the time. nanoplastic is even present in the majority of the world’s drinking water. These findings are a smaller piece of a much larger puzzle… likely made out of plastic.
“As I said before, we are just beginning to answer these questions. It’s important to understand that many of these materials that we haven’t even thought about are common consumer-grade materials that come into contact with our food and beverages, plastics can be released that are easily consumed,” concludes Zangmeister.