Overall, it appears we have an addiction to plastic. In nearly every corner of your local store, products are covered in or made with plastic. Not only is it difficult to get rid of plastic without damaging the environment, but it appears our addiction is to all things disposable.

Across the world, 299 million tons of plastic were produced in 2013, much of which ended up in the oceans, threatening wildlife and the environment. In 2017, the U.S. alone generated 35.4 million tons of plastic and sent 26.8 million tons to landfills, which accounted for 13.2% of all municipal solid waste.

Chemicals found in plastic products are known to act as endocrine disruptors, the most pervasive and well-known of which includes phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA).

Endocrine disruptors are similar in structure to natural sex hormones, and they interfere with the normal functioning of those hormones in your body. This poses a particular problem for children who are still growing and developing.

According to Pete Myers, Ph.D., adjunct professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University and founder, CEO and chief scientist of Environmental Health Sciences, there is evidence that plastic chemicals are harming the health of future generations through intergenerational endocrine disruption.

He points out that no plastic has ever been thoroughly tested for safety, and that testing currently used is based on “16th-century principles.” As researchers continue to measure the amount and type of plastic we are ingesting, one team analyzed the number of microparticles that may be released in plastic baby bottles.

Plastic Baby Bottles Release Microparticles During Use

John Boland, Ph.D., Trinity College Dublin, and colleagues analyzed the release of microplastics from plastic baby bottles to which infants may be exposed while consuming formula.

To collect their data, the scientists initially cleaned and sterilized new polypropylene bottles. Once the bottles had air-dried, the scientists added heated purified water that had reached 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit). This is the temperature for making formula recommended by the World Health Organization. The bottles were then added to a mechanical shaker for one minute.

The team filtered the water and analyzed the contents, discovering the bottles leaked a wide range of particles per liter of water, numbering up to 16.2 million plastic particles. The average number in the bottles tested reached 4 million particles for every liter of water. The experiment was repeated with baby formula and the results were the same. Boland commented on the study:

“We were surprised by the quantity. Based on research that has been done previously looking at the degradation of plastics in the environment, we had a suspicion that the quantities would be substantial, but I don’t think anyone expected the very high levels that we found.”

The data also revealed the number of microplastics shed was dependent on water temperature and mechanics. The higher the temperature of the water when it reached the bottle, the more microplastics were released.

When the temperature was higher, the bottles released up to 55 million particles of microplastic. The experiment also demonstrated that shaking the bottles increased the number of microplastics released. Boland continued:

"When we saw these results in the lab we recognized immediately the potential impact they might have. The last thing we want is to unduly alarm parents, particularly when we don't have sufficient information on the potential consequences of microplastics on infant health.”

Infants May Ingest Up to 4.5 Million Particles a Day

The researchers predicted that, globally, infants up to 12 months old may be exposed to 14,600 to 4.55 million microplastic particles a day, depending on region, which is higher than previously recognized due to the widespread usage of polypropylene baby bottles.

Whether or not this exposure poses a risk to infants’ health presents an “urgent need,” they added, and made several recommendations for parents who continue to use plastic baby bottles to help reduce the amount of microplastics their baby ingests.

The suggestions include reducing the bottle’s exposure to heat and shaking by preparing the formula in a glass container and transferring it to the baby bottle after it has cooled. Breastfeeding, if possible, would be an even better alternative that eliminates the need for bottles; however, glass baby bottles are also available.

For the study, the researchers used purified water and not standard drinking water. This means they may have even underestimated the number of plastic particles babies are exposed to. A study from the University of Newcastle looked at the “existing but limited” literature estimating the average amount of plastic ingested by humans.

Calculations were made based on 33 studies of the consumption of plastic from food and beverages. The researchers estimated that the average person consumes 1,769 plastic particles from drinking water each week. Plastic particles are found in many water sources. In the U.S., 94.4% of all tap water samples contained plastic fibers, as did 82.4% of samples from India and 72.2% from Europe.

DARPA Awards Grant to Make Food From Plastic

If the inadvertent consumption of plastic is not enough, the abundance of manufactured plastic has turned the eyes of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) toward how to make plastic into food. DARPA awarded Iowa State University and partners a $2.7 million grant to make food from plastic and paper waste.

They intend to use the resulting “food products” to improve military logistics in the field. The idea is to help with short-term nourishment for soldiers in the field and improve logistics for long missions. By the end of the project, they estimate the grant may reach $7.8 million.

Other partners include the American Institute of Chemical Engineers RAPID Institute, the University of Delaware and Sandia National Laboratories. The idea is to convert paper waste into sugars and plastics into fatty acids and fatty alcohols. The byproducts of these would then be processed into single cell biomass in the field.

Other examples of single cell proteins include Vegemite and nutritional yeast. Although DARPA has initiated the project for use by the military, it is not a stretch to think that such a system would be proposed as a means of providing inexpensive foodstuffs for others.

As explained in the press release from Iowa State University, the process could “go a long way toward solving looming problems of plastic disposal and ensuring a viable global food chain.”

Principle investigator Robert Brown explained that the process under investigation would speed biodegradation of plastics “by raising the temperature a few hundred degrees Fahrenheit. The cooled product is used to grow yeast or bacteria into single cell protein suitable as food.”

Lifetime Average Consumption of Plastic Is Shocking

Although drinking water is the largest source of microplastics in food and beverages, it is not the only source. Bottled water may contain even more plastic than tap water, and research has suggested those who drink bottled water exclusively “may be ingesting an additional 90,000 microplastics annually, compared to 4,000 microplastics for those who consume only tap water.”

After testing 259 bottles of 11 bottled water brands, researchers found on average 325 pieces of microplastic per liter. The brands tested included Aquafina, Evian, Dasani, San Pellegrino and Nestle Pure Life. Based on findings from the World Wildlife Fund International study, Reuters created an illustration demonstrating how much plastic a person would consume over time.

According to these estimations, you may consume 44 pounds of shredded plastic over 79 years. To put this in perspective, one car tire weighs about 20 pounds. So a lifetime supply of plastic consumption would be like slowly eating 2.2 car tires.

The long-term health risks of ingesting plastic particles are unknown. However, there is reason to be concerned. For instance, microplastics used for textile fibers make up 16% of the world's plastic production. These plastics contain contaminants such as polycyclic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which may be genotoxic, causing DNA damage that can lead to cancer.

The plastics also contain dyes, plasticizers and other additives linked to toxic effects, including carcinogenicity, reproductive toxicity and mutagenicity. Since humans are exposed to a heavy toxic burden, it's difficult to link health problems back to microplastics.

However, many of the chemicals used in their manufacture are also known to disrupt hormones and gene expression and cause organ damage. Research has also linked them to obesity, heart disease and cancer. To read more about the risks associated with plastic ingestion, see “How Do We Stop Our Dangerous Addiction to Plastic?”

Would You Like Some Plastic With Your Tea?

If you are working to reduce your exposure to plastics in your food and beverages, it may be surprising to learn where plastics are also lurking. Tea has been an important beverage in many cultures around the world and recognized for centuries for the dramatic and positive effects it has on health.

A soothing cup of hot tea may be just what your body needs to boost phytochemicals and other nutrients. But did you know that you may also be drinking 11.6 billion microplastic pieces and 3.1 billion nanoplastics with every cup of tea? Researchers from McGill University analyzed plastic pollution released from tea bags and found when the leaves were removed, the tea did not have plastic microparticles.

However, the empty bags dumped billions of particles into the hot water, which researchers found at levels thousands of times greater than reported with other food and beverages. There are a significant number of health benefits in tea, so it is wise to continue drinking it, but consider substituting loose leaf tea for tea bags.

Yet another everyday item that carries more microplastics than you may have anticipated is sea salt. One study looked at salt sampled from around the world to analyze the geographical spread of microplastics and the correlation to where the pollution is found in the environment.

Only three brands from Taiwan, China and France did not have microplastic particles in the sea salt. Data showed the highest quantity of plastics were found in salt gathered off the coast of Asian countries.

Research has also found tiny plastic particles in fruits and vegetables. The data showed apples had an average of 195,500 plastic particles in each gram. Pears came in second with 189,500 particles per gram. Earlier studies had demonstrated plants are absorbing nanoplastics through the roots, and fruits and vegetables can accumulate these microplastics. Greenpeace campaigner Sion Chan explained:

“When we take a bite of an apple, we are almost certainly consuming microplastics along with it. To mitigate plastic pollution, corporations should enforce a reduction of plastic usage and waste in their supply chains. Supermarkets have gone pretty far with all the plastics! The faster we reduce our plastic footprint, the fewer microplastic we consume.”

What You Can Do to Reduce Your Use

Considering research confirms that environmental estrogens have multigenerational effects,31 it is wise to take proactive steps to limit your exposure. This is particularly important for younger people who have more years to accumulate plastic pollution and may be more vulnerable to its effects during development.

While it's virtually impossible to steer clear of all sources, you can minimize your exposure by keeping some key principles in mind. Start the process slowly and make the changes a habit in your life so they stick.

Avoid plastic containers and plastic wrap for food and personal care products. Store food and drinks in glass containers instead.

Avoid plastic children's toys. Use toys made of natural substances, such as wood and organic materials.

Read labels on your cosmetics and avoid those containing phthalates.

Avoid products labeled with "fragrance,” including air fresheners, as this catch-all term may include phthalates commonly used to stabilize the scent and extend the life of the product.

Read labels looking for PVC-free products, including children's lunch boxes, backpacks and storage containers.

Do not microwave food in plastic containers or covered in plastic wrap.

Frequently vacuum and dust rooms with vinyl blinds, wallpaper, flooring and furniture that may contain phthalates as the chemical collects in dust and is easily ingested by children or can settle on your food plates.

Ask your pharmacist if your prescription pills are coated to control when they dissolve as the coating may contain phthalates.

Eat mostly fresh, raw whole foods. Packaging is often a source of phthalates.

Use glass baby bottles instead of plastic. Breastfeed exclusively for the first year if you can to avoid plastic nipples and bottles all together.

Remove your fruit and vegetables from plastic bags immediately after coming home from the grocery store and wash before storing them.

Cash register receipts are heat printed and often contain BPA. Handle the receipt as little as possible and ask the store to switch to BPA-free receipts.

Use natural cleaning products or make your own.

Replace feminine hygiene products with safer alternatives.

Avoid fabric softeners and dryer sheets; make your own to reduce static cling.

Check your home's tap water for contaminants and filter the water if necessary.

Teach your children not to drink from the garden hose, as many are made from plasticizers such phthalates.

Use reusable shopping bags for groceries.

Take your own leftovers container to restaurants. Avoid disposable utensils and straws.

Bring your own mug for coffee, and bring drinking water from home in glass water bottles instead of buying bottled water.

Consider switching to bamboo toothbrushes and brushing your teeth with coconut oil and baking soda to avoid plastic toothpaste tubes.