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Human microplastic ingestion levels mapped across 109 countries

Microplastic ingestion is now an inescapable part of our daily lives, entering our bodies through the food we eat and the air we breathe. A recent study has mapped the human uptake of microplastics across 109 countries, revealing some startling trends.

Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines top the list for dietary microplastic consumption per capita, while China, Mongolia, and the United Kingdom lead in microplastic inhalation.

Microplastic ingestion from the human diet

Published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, this study builds on existing data models to estimate how much microplastic humans consume unknowingly.

These microplastics result from untreated plastic debris degrading and dispersing into the environment.

Furthermore, the study considers factors such as eating habits, food processing technologies, age demographics, and breathing rates to provide a comprehensive estimate of human microplastic ingestion.

Microplastics, tiny plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size, have become a pervasive part of our diet. These particles enter our food through various pathways, posing potential health risks.

Seafood is a significant source, as fish and shellfish ingest microplastics from polluted oceans, which then transfer to humans upon consumption.

Sea salt, particularly in regions with high marine pollution, also contains substantial amounts of microplastics.

How humans ingest microplastics. Credit: Environmental Science and Technology

Bottled water is another contributor, with plastic bottles shedding microplastics into the water we drink. Food packaging, especially when heated, can release microplastics into food we ingest.

Additionally, plastics used in agriculture, like mulch films, can break down and contaminate crops, further microplastic ingestion in our diets.

The ingestion of microplastics through diet is concerning due to their ability to absorb harmful chemicals, which can then enter the body.

Breathing and indirect microplastic ingestion

The study’s data on dietary microplastic ingestion includes concentrations found in various food groups: fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains, dairy, drinks, sugars, salt, and spices.

For example, while table salt consumption is similar between Indonesia and the U.S., the microplastic concentration in Indonesian table salt is about 100 times higher.

Consequently, Indonesians consume about 15 grams of microplastics per month, primarily from seafood, making it the highest in the world.

World map showing levels of human microplastics ingestion. Credit: Environmental Science and Technology

In comparison, U.S. residents consume approximately 2.4 grams per month, while Paraguayans consume the least at 0.85 grams.

Airborne microplastic concentration, age demographics, and respiration rates were analyzed to determine inhalation rates.

Residents of China and Mongolia inhale over 2.8 million particles per month, topping the global list. In contrast, U.S. residents inhale about 300,000 particles per month.

The lowest inhalation rates are found in Mediterranean regions, with Spain, Portugal, and Hungary residents inhaling between 60,000 to 240,000 particles monthly.

Implications of industrialization

“Industrialization in developing economies, particularly in East and South Asia, has led to increased consumption of plastic materials, waste generation, and human microplastic uptake,” said Fengqi You, the Roxanne E. and Michael J. Zak Professor in Energy Systems Engineering and senior faculty fellow at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.

Developed countries, however, are seeing a reverse trend due to better economic resources for reducing and removing plastic debris.

Strategies for reduction

The study suggests that a 90% reduction in aquatic plastic debris could significantly decrease microplastic ingestion — by up to 51% in developed countries and 49% in highly industrializing regions.

These findings come just after an international committee meeting (April 23–29) negotiating the U.N. Plastics Treaty, which aims to establish global rules for plastic production and disposal.

The treaty, expected to be finalized later this year, will emphasize international collaboration to reduce marine microplastics.

Addressing microplastic uptake: a multifaceted approach

“Cleaning the global surface water system is a marathon influenced by local industrial and socioeconomic settings,” said Xiang Zhao, a doctoral student and co-author of the study.

The global map pinpointing aquatic microplastic hotspots can initiate this journey.

The study highlights that addressing microplastic ingestion requires sustainable packaging solutions, stringent waste management regulations, and advanced water treatment technologies.

This comprehensive mapping of global microplastic ingestion provides crucial insights for local pollution mitigation efforts and supports the development of targeted strategies to combat this global crisis.

The full study was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.


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