Your food and water are contaminated with plastic. Here's why it's in the food system and how it could affect your health.
By Kevin Loria
August 13, 2019
For anyone living in the U.S. in 2019, plastic is nearly impossible to avoid: It lines soup cans, leaches out of storage containers, hides in household dust, and is found inside of toys, electronics, shampoo, cosmetics, and countless other products. It's used to make thousands of single-use items, from grocery bags to forks to candy wrappers.
But what many people don't know is that we're doing more than just using plastic. We're ingesting it, too. When you eat a bite of food or even have a sip of water, you're almost certainly taking in tiny plastic particles along with it. These ubiquitous fragments are known as microplastics.
Because research into microplastics is so new, there’s not yet enough data to say exactly how they’re affecting human health, says Jodi Flaws, Ph.D., a professor of comparative biosciences and associate director of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Toxicology Program at the University of Illinois.
But “there cannot be no effect,” says Pete Myers, Ph.D., founder and chief scientist of the nonprofit Environmental Health Sciences and an adjunct professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University. It's likely that ingesting microplastics could further expose us to chemicals found in some plastics that are known to be harmful.
These chemicals have been linked to a variety of health problems, including reproductive harm and obesity, plus issues like organ problems and developmental delays in children.
Here's what you need to know about the tiny bits of plastic in our food and water—and what you can do to try to avoid at least some of them.
Why Is Plastic in Food and Water?
Humans have produced more than 8 billion tons of plastic, mostly since the 1950s. Less than 10 percent of it has been recycled.
Over time, much of it has broken down into tiny particles that make their way into lakes, rivers, and oceans, eventually contaminating our food and water. And much of our food comes wrapped in plastic, which leads to tiny particles breaking off into our meals.
There is so much plastic all around that we even breathe in tens of thousands of tiny plastic fragments or fibers every year.
How Much Plastic Do People Ingest?
One research review published in June calculated that just by eating, drinking, and breathing, the average American ingests at least 74,000 microplastic particles every year. (Microplastic particles are defined as 5 millimeters at their largest; most of the ones we ingest are far smaller.) And that analysis looked at only 15 percent of the foods in an average diet, meaning the amount of plastic we consume through food could actually be far greater.
Another recent study commissioned by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF, formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund) and conducted by researchers at the University of Newcastle in Australia estimated that the average person consumes about 5 grams of plastic a week—roughly the equivalent of a credit card. (That work is still under review.)
How Does Plastic Affect Your Health?
There is evidence, at least in animals, that microplastics can cross the hardy membrane protecting the brain from many foreign bodies that get into the bloodstream. And there’s some evidence that mothers may be able to pass microplastics through the placenta to a developing fetus, according to research that has not yet been published but was presented at a spring conference at the Rutgers Center for Urban Environmental Sustainability.
According to Myers, some of these microplastic particles could potentially also leach bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates. Flaws says the particles can accumulate PCBs, other chemicals that are linked to harmful health effects, including various cancers, a weakened immune system, reproductive problems, and more.
And once these chemicals are inside of us, even low doses have an effect.
Bisphenols are known to interfere with hormones, Flaws says. There are studies linking bisphenol exposure to reduced fertility in men and women, she says. Phthalates are also known to disrupt hormones, and prenatal exposure to phthalates is linked to lower testosterone in male offspring, she says. Styrene, another chemical found in plastic and some food packaging, has been linked to a number of health issues, including nervous system problems, hearing loss, and cancer.
In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a report saying that chemicals, including bisphenols and phthalates, may put children’s health at risk, and a statement recommending that families reduce exposure to these chemicals. More research is needed to determine at what levels exposure becomes particularly dangerous, but experts recommend a precautionary approach.
Though children are a particularly high-risk population, adults also face risks from being exposed to these chemicals, says Flaws, who is also a spokesperson for the Endocrine Society, an organization focused on hormone research and disorders.
"Plastic products were never designed to end up in our oceans," the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) said in a statement to Consumer Reports. It added that research has not shown "significant human health impacts" from microplastics, but this is something PLASTICS and experts we spoke with agreed requires further study.
The American Chemistry Council, another industry group, said in a statement to Consumer Reports that plastics used for food packaging must meet strict Food and Drug Administration safety standards.
“To help evaluate the safety of our food, FDA reviews safety information on food packaging materials, including whether tiny amounts of substances could potentially migrate from a package into its contents. Through rigorous analysis, the health experts at the FDA have determined these products to be safe for their intended use.”
But not everyone agrees that there's sufficient oversight. Companies can designate substances that come into contact with food as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) without providing peer-reviewed safety evidence to the FDA, a policy Consumer Reports has previously flagged as something that can put consumers at risk. The 2018 AAP report criticized the long list of chemicals that come into contact with food, citing evidence that indicates they may contribute to death and disease. That report and Myers say these chemicals should be more strictly regulated.
6 Tips to Reduce Your Exposure to Plastic
You can’t totally avoid microplastics and concerning chemicals found in plastic because they’re found everywhere, even in household dust. The broadest step would be to try to avoid foods and drinks that are packaged in plastic, though that’s almost impossible to do, says Sherri Mason, Ph.D., sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend and a chemist who has studied the presence of plastic in tap water, beer, sea salt, and bottled water.
But these small steps can help you avoid at least unnecessary extra exposure to plastics and concerning chemicals:
Drink water from your tap. Drinking water is one of the biggest contributors to microplastic ingestion, but bottled water has about double the microplastic level of tap water, according to Mason, making it a poor choice for those who want to consume less plastic. Some bottled waters have also been found to have high levels of PFAS chemicals. Mason says that unless you know your tap water is unsafe, you should opt for that over anything in a plastic bottle.
Don't heat food in plastic. When you’re warming up food, do it in a pan (in the oven or on the stove) or in a glass container (in the microwave), says Flaws, because heated plastics have been known to leach chemicals into food. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends not putting plastic into your dishwasher.
Avoid plastic food containers with known issues. The AAP report noted that recycling codes “3,” “6,” and “7” respectively indicate the presence of phthalates, styrene, and bisphenols—so you may want to avoid using containers that have those numbers in the recycling symbol on the bottom. The report adds that if these products are labeled as "biobased" or "greenware," they do not contain bisphenols.
Eat more fresh food. Though the levels of microplastics in fresh produce have been largely untested, these products are less likely to expose you to concerning chemicals, according to the AAP, especially when compared with anything wrapped in plastic. Many food cans are also lined with bisphenols, meaning concerning chemicals can be found there, too.
Minimize household dust. Household dust can expose people to chemicals, including phthalates, PFAS, and flame retardants, according to Flaws. Vacuuming regularly can help reduce household dust exposure, according to the Silent Spring Institute, and it’s possible that air purifiers may help as well (that still needs to be studied, but they do seem to help reduce indoor air pollution).
Think big picture. Individuals can take actions to limit their plastic exposure, according to Myers, but large-scale solutions will require reducing the amount of plastic used overall. Almost no plastic is actually recycled or recyclable, with most of it being too contaminated or too low quality, former EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck, now a senior fellow at the Bennington College Center for the Advancement of Public Action, explained at a recent conference on plastic pollution. That’s especially true for much of the single-use plastic packaging that so much food comes in.
And plastic production is expected to more than quadruple between 2015 and 2050, which means the amount of plastic contamination in the environment will rise along with it. The experts we spoke with say that to limit personal exposure to these substances in the long run, consumers should opt for products packaged in glass instead of plastic, use reusable non-plastic containers whenever possible, and support policies limiting the use of single-use plastic.