Microplastics: Harmful to our health?

Microplastics is a substance that has become increasingly popular in recent years, because more and more often its traces are found in the environment. Microplastics is found in many everyday products, for example in cosmetics such as shower gel, exfoliation or toothpaste. However, the tiny plastic particles can also get into our food via detours. How does this affect our health? And how do you recognize products without microplastics? Learn here what is known about these questions so far.

What is microplastic?

Microplastic, as the name implies, is microscopic plastic. By a common definition, the tiny plastic particles have a size of less than five millimeters in diameter, although they are actually often much smaller.

Microplastic is made of solid, insoluble and non-biodegradable plastic such as polyethylene - one speaks of synthetic polymers.

How is microplastic made?

Its origins distinguish two different types of microplastics: primary and secondary microplastics.

The primary form is industrially produced plastic pellets and powders. In cosmetics such as shower gel or scrubs, the small globules are added, for example, to achieve a massaging or "scorching" effect. But they also form the starting material for the production of plastic products. This is also called primary microplastics type A.

In addition to this type of microplastics too fibers counted, for example, when washing a garment made of polyester get into the wash water, and the abrasion of car tires, road markings, shoe soles or artificial turf. This is also referred to as Type B primary microplasty - however, depending on the definition, it is sometimes considered a secondary microplastics.

Secondary microplasty arises during Decay of larger plastic parts or plastic waste, for example, when plastic bags or fishing nets are slowly decomposed by the sun and weather.

Dangers to the environment

Environmentalists sharply criticize the industrial use of microplastics. Because the small plastic parts in our everyday products are flushed through the wastewater into the sewage treatment plant, where they can not be completely filtered out.

Over time, they come across rivers into the sea. Once they get there, they can not be removed and they are a burden to the environment for centuries.

Due to its structural nature, the microplastic driving in the sea pulls Environmental toxins and bacteria and collect them on its surface. The plastic particles are then eaten by marine life such as fish or mussels. The pollutant-enriched microplastics not only affects the marine organisms, but also ends up on our plates.

Also via the fertilization of agricultural land with sewage sludge or the use of compost from biogas plants microplastics ends up in our environment - but then in the soil.

How does microplastic get into our body?

The ways in which microplastics can enter our body are not yet clear. It is undisputed that it can be detected almost everywhere in the environment. Not only in soils, waters and marine animals, too in the air you can find the plastic particles. In theory, they can not only get into the food chain through seafood, but also through crops such as vegetables. It is also believed that we breathe or consume microplastics with the air when the particles settle on the food.

Researchers could microplastic too in human stool samples prove. However, due to the small number of participants in the pilot study, it was not possible to determine whether the particles originated, for example, from consumed marine life, from plastic-packaged foods or from other sources. Also on the health effect says the Fund nothing - only that the body is able to excrete the particles again.

cosmetics On the other hand, they probably do not directly contribute to the fact that we take up microplastics. According to the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), microplastic particles in cosmetics are too large to penetrate the skin, so BfR estimates that this poses no direct health risk.1

Health consequences for animals and humans

Little is known about the consequences of microplastics in the human body. Initial findings are mainly in relation to animals. In the case of mussels, for example, it could be observed that the microplastics entered the cells and triggered inflammatory reactions there.2

Scientists fear that the microscopic particles could also penetrate into the body's cells in humans and cause inflammation there. Thus, the lung tissue could possibly be damaged by inhaled microplastics or the particles could accumulate in the lymph nodes of the intestine.3

Furthermore, laboratory tests provide evidence that microplastics in animals may affect growth and reproduction. The Federal Environment Agency also fears injuries to the gastrointestinal tract, as well as the particles could accumulate in the gastrointestinal tract, obstruct the digestion and block the intake of food.4

Absorption of pollutants

Another potential risk is the microplastic adhering pollutants (such as pesticides) and pathogens. These can be released in the gastrointestinal tract of marine life and there develop a potentially carcinogenic or mutagenic effect.

Also, in the decomposition of plastic, the additives contained therein such as plasticizers, flame retardants or UV filters can be delivered to the body of the animals, which may be toxic or hormonal, inter alia.5

By eating fish and seafood so polluted, these substances can also enter our bodies. Whether a harmful dose can be achieved has not yet been explored.

However, the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) points out that foods with an increased pollutant content must not be in circulation anyway due to the mandatory limit values. In addition, according to the BMU, the plastic particles are excreted by the body, so that no health risk to humans is to be feared.6

Does Microplastic Promote Antibiotic Resistance?

In one study, the colonization of bacteria on microplastic in the sewage treatment plant was investigated.7 It turned out that the bacterial genus Sphingopyxis likes to settle on the microparticles. This is a genus that often forms an antibiotic resistance.

Whether microplastics can contribute to the spread of antibiotic resistance in this way is not yet clear.

Where is microplastic in it?

Microplastic is used in various cosmetics, personal care and cleaning products. According to estimates by the Federal Environmental Agency in 2015, about 500 tons of microplastics are used in cosmetics every year in Germany.8

Typical products that often contain microplastic are:

  • peeling
  • Shower gel and cream soap
  • Shampoo, conditioner and hairspray
  • Cream and body lotion as well as hand and foot care
  • nail polish
  • Make-up and make-up
  • deodorant
  • shaving cream
  • toothpaste
  • suncream
  • diapers
  • Detergent and hand wash

Microplastics is sometimes used in industry or medicine.

Microplastic in drinking water and mineral water

It is assumed that our Drinking water contains no microplastic, since the content can be almost completely reduced by the water treatment. This was shown by studies of German drinking water.

If there is any microplastics in the drinking water, the amount is so low that the Federal Environmental Agency sees no impairment of quality. So anyone who wants to drink tap water does not need to use a water filter to make sure that no microplastics are contained.

It is different with Mineral water. In one study, microplastic particles were found in each of the tested mineral waters. The researchers suspect that they come from the plastic of the bottles or lids. An enrichment with pollutants is not to be feared here.9

Also Plastic kettle are suspected of giving microplastics to the water.

Microplastics in food?

So far no microplastics could be detected in foods - studies that came to other assessments are generally considered refuted due to methodological deficiencies.

One exception is sea salt as well as marine animals such as fish, shells or crabs, in which microplastics have been detected several times. The BfR stresses, however, that the plastic particles have so far only been found in the gastrointestinal tract, at least in fish, which is usually not consumed anyway.1

Avoid microplastics - what can you do yourself?

The majority of microplastic in the oceans is secondary microplastic or comes from the abrasion of car tires and the washing of synthetic textiles. The latter accounts for an estimated 35 percent of the primary microplastic in the oceans - microplastics from cosmetic products, however, only about two percent.

As a consumer, you can still help reduce microplastics:

  1. Try not to buy any cosmetics that contain microplastic. Tips for identifying such products and alternatives are presented below.
  2. Anyone who already owns cosmetics with microplastics should ideally dispose of them in household waste, recommends the BUND e. V.
  3. When washing synthetic textiles such as fleece, plastic fibers enter the wastewater. By buying clothes made of natural materials you can help to avoid microplastics. Special wash bags or laundry bags are also available, which are to filter the fibers from the wash water - the experts, however, estimate their effectiveness as rather low.
  4. The biggest source of microplastics is plastic waste. If you help to avoid plastic and avoid plastic waste, you also protect the environment from microplastics.

Which ingredients characterize microplastic?

For consumers, it is often not possible to detect microplastics in products based on the ingredients, as there is no labeling requirement for plastics contained. First indications can supply but among other names and abbreviations such as:

  • Acrylates copolymer (AC)
  • Nylon-12
  • Polyethylene (PE)
  • Polypropylene (PP)
  • Polyacrylate (PA)

However, consumers can not tell whether these ingredients are actually microplastic or, for example, a liquid form of the substance in question.

For cosmetic and personal care products, it may therefore be advisable to natural cosmetics to grab. Also seals such as the "Blue Angel", the EU Ecolabel or label for certified natural cosmetics can help to identify products that contain little or no microplastics.

List of products without microplastics

It can make purchasing easier if you specifically inform yourself in advance which products contain microplastics and which do not. Various agencies offer lists of products with or without microplastics - usually these guides are available online or as an app and are constantly updated.

Such a list of products containing microplastics and other plastics can be found at BUND e.V.

A popular alternative is the CodeCheck app, which uses the barcode to provide information about the ingredients (based on data from Greenpeace and the WWF, among others).

In addition to microplastics, cosmetics can also other synthetic plastics contained, which are partly liquid or water-soluble and serve, for example, as a filler or binder. Since it is completely unclear how these are mined in the environment and what they have effects on nature, these are also in the criticism. Often the available lists therefore do not distinguish between microplastic and other plastics.

What are the alternatives to microplastics?

The Federal Environment Agency considers microplastics in cosmetics and detergents to be dispensable. In fact, there are many alternatives in this field of application. Here are some examples:

  • peelings without microplastic contain, for example, silica, sugar surfactants or healing earth. Alternatively, you can make a scrub yourself or use tools such as a brush or an exfoliating glove.
  • Meanwhile it is toothpaste Without microplastic almost the rule - only a few manufacturers use microplastics as so-called "abrasive" in their toothpaste.
  • shower gel is often available without microplastic. Alternatively, it can be replaced, for example, with a piece of soap - so you do without the plastic bottle at the same time.
  • The same applies to Shampoo: In addition to shampoos without microplastic, special hair soaps are also available here in one piece.

Conclusion: Is microplastic harmful to health?

Whether microplastic is harmful to health is not yet clear. Although more and more research is being done in the area, there are still no uniform definitions and measurement methods, so that there are hardly any comparable studies.

At the same time, legislative work is being done to reduce the use of microplastics. In 2018, the EU has published a strategy to reduce the pollution of the oceans with plastic. The use of microplastics should also be curbed in the long term.

The German Federal Environmental Agency, which sees microplastic as a risk to the environment and waters, is in talks with the cosmetics industry for a voluntary renunciation of microplastics and also pleads for an EU-wide ban on plastic particles.

Some manufacturers of cosmetics and other products that previously contained microplastics have already announced that they will not use the ingredient in the future or have already implemented it. In other areas, for example in textile production, research is currently being carried out into ways of avoiding microplastics.

Sources and further information

  1. Federal Institute for Risk Research (2014): Questions and answers on microplastics. FAQ of the BfR from 1. December 2014.
  2. Moos, N .; Burkhardt-Holm, P .; Köhler, A. (2012): Uptake and effects of microplastics on cells and tissue of the blue mussel Mytilus edulis L. after an experimental exposure.
  3. Wright, S. L .; Kelly, F.J. (2017): Plastic and Human Health: A Micro Issue?
  4. Umweltbundesamt (2016): Microplastics in cosmetics - What is it?
  5. Federal Environmental Agency (2013): Is microplastic problematic?
  6. Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (2017): Microplastics in food.
  7. Dr. K. Beck / Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research Warnemünde (2018): New IOW study: Does microplastic pose additional dangers due to colonization with harmful bacteria?
  8. Federal Environmental Agency (2015): Microplastics in the sea - how much? From where? UBA: Big plastic waste deserves much more attention.
  9. Schymanski, D. / Chemical and Veterinary Investigation Office Münsterland-Emscher-Lippe (2018): Investigation of microplastics in food and cosmetics.

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