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Contamination crisis: Microplastics found in 88% of protein food sources

A recent study led by the Ocean Conservancy and the University of Toronto has uncovered startling evidence of microplastic contamination in a vast majority of protein sources, including those beyond seafood. 

The research reveals a disturbing penetration of plastic particles into our everyday diet. The experts estimate that American adults could be consuming up to 3.8 million microplastics per year from protein alone. 

Alarming findings

The researchers tested 16 different protein types, ranging from meats like beef and chicken to plant-based alternatives. What is particularly concerning is that microplastic contamination was uniformly present across all protein sources. The results showed that 88% of the samples contained microplastic particles.

Study co-author Dr. Britta Baechler, a marine biologist and associate director of plastics science at Ocean Conservancy, highlighted the ubiquity of plastic pollution.

“This is a startling reminder of just how prolific plastic pollution has become – humans live on land and yet seafood samples are just as likely to be contaminated with plastics as are terrestrial derived proteins,” said Dr. Baechler. “And there’s no escaping them no matter what you eat, it seems. The plastic pollution crisis is impacting all of us, and we need to take action to address its many forms.”

The role of food processing 

The experts found a significant variance in microplastic concentration based on the level of food processing. Highly processed items like fish sticks and chicken nuggets had higher microplastic content than minimally processed products. 

However, microplastic levels were found to be similar between highly processed products and fresh-caught items. This suggests that there are additional microplastic contamination sources beyond food processing.

Drawing conclusions 

Study lead author Madeleine Milne urges caution in drawing dietary conclusions from this data. 

“It’s tempting to want to draw conclusions like ‘eat less of this and more of that’ to avoid microplastics in your diet; but right now we still know very little about the microplastic burdens in commonly consumed foods,” said Milne.

“Our study adds to this knowledge but also demonstrates the need for further research to better understand the bigger picture, including where these microplastics are coming from and the potential human health risks.”

Microplastic fibers

The study also sheds light on the nature of the contaminants. Nearly half of the microplastics discovered were fibers, which aligns with previous research that identified fibers as the most prevalent form of microplastics in the environment. Fragments constituted about 30% of the microplastics.

Consumption rates 

Based on survey data from a separate study by Ocean Conservancy and the University of Toronto, the experts estimate that an average American adult could ingest around 11,500 microplastics per year. 

Annual exposure could be as high as 3.8 million microplastics per year if calculated using the highest levels of microplastics found in each individual protein type and the average reported protein consumption rates, noted the researchers.

Growing plastics crisis 

“As ocean scientists, my co-authors and I are deeply concerned about the growing plastics crisis in the world’s ocean,” said study co-author Dr. George Leonard, chief scientist at Ocean Conservancy. 

“But our study shows that plastics in our food goes well beyond fish and shellfish to a wide variety of other protein sources, as well. Our work is a call to action to reduce plastic pollution in its many forms to ensure a safe and healthy food supply for all consumers.”

The study is published in the journal Environmental Pollution.

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