Microplastics in Our Midst: New Insights into Environmental and Health Impacts

Apr, 2024 | Health

“Not only are plastics polluting our oceans and waterways and killing marine life – it’s in all of us and we can’t escape consuming plastics”


Director General of WWF International

Plastic production and usage have risen exponentially over the past century, flooding our environment with this ubiquitous material. But plastics don’t simply vanish once discarded – they break down into ever-smaller pieces called microplastics. Researchers are gaining novel insights into how microplastics pervade our world and may affect our health.

What are Microplastics?

Microplastics are plastic pieces smaller than 5 mm in size. They originate from two main sources: primary microplastics are micro-sized plastics produced and used intentionally, like microbeads in cosmetics and hygiene products; secondary microplastics form when larger plastic items break down from factors like sun exposure, wave action, and mechanical abrasion. As plastic waste accumulates in the environment without fully degrading, it weathers into microplastics.

Microplastics’ Presence in the Environment

Microplastic pollution has been documented worldwide. Studies find microplastics in fresh and marine waters globally, including remote mountain lakes and frozen Arctic sea ice. They’re also ubiquitous in soil, including farmland soils, indicating microplastics accumulate through natural processes too. Another avenue is commercial sale of bottled water and salt – trace microplastic contamination has even been found in some widely sold brands.

The abundance of microplastics arises from their stable, non-degrading nature. Weathering breakdown is an exceedingly slow process that produces more microplastics. Unlike other pollutants, microplastics don’t get filtered out or broken down over time, leading to accumulation instead. The scale of plastic production outpaces any cleanup or regulation efforts so far. Microplastics’ small size also allows them to easily travel long distances by wind and ocean currents.

Effects on Wildlife and Ecosystems

Numerous studies demonstrate microplastics harm marine life. Lab experiments find microplastics compromise immune function and development in fish and shellfish. Sea turtles and seabirds mistake microplastics for food, with potentially lethal consequences. Field observations detect microplastics in the digestive tracts of a wide range of marine species worldwide, from zooplankton to whales.

Microplastics also concentrate toxins from seawater, forming a vector to introduce these chemicals into food webs. In many species, plastic ingestion disrupts energy balance and nutrient uptake. Some research even hints at population-level microplastic effects, as declining numbers of certain seabird species correlate with microplastic pollution levels. Effects likely ripple through entire ecosystems.

Microplastics’ Impacts on Human Health: An Emerging Picture

As with wildlife, humans are daily exposed to microplastics through various pathways. Respiratory exposure occurs through indoor air and synthetic textiles. However, dietary intake is considered the primary route, with studies estimating people consume millions of microplastic particles annually through food and drink.

While health impacts remain unclear, emerging research paints an ominous picture. Studies find ingested microplastics translocate from the gut and accumulate in organs like the liver, kidney and brain in rodent models. This suggests microplastics may interact directly with our tissues or disrupt metabolic processes.

Notably, metabolic changes have been documented in the gut, liver and brain after microplastic exposure. Targeted analyses indicate systemic effects on amino acid metabolism, bile acid synthesis and xenobiotic processing. Plastic mixtures appear more potent than single plastics, with the greatest impacts at higher exposure levels. Microplastics’ capacity to skew our metabolism raises concerns for immune, endocrine and other body systems closely tied to nutritional status.

Their small size may also enable microplastics to transgress protective barriers more easily than larger debris. Laboratory evidence shows nanoplastics can cross the placental barrier from mother to fetus in rodents, raising worries for reproductive health. Inhalation studies also find nanoplastics redistribute systemically after lung exposure.

Microplastic detection techniques are advancing rapidly. Recent progress includes visualizing microplastics in post-mortem human lung and liver tissues. Microplastics have even been quantified in living humans’ blood and stool, an unprecedented finding that further motivates health impact investigations. However, thresholds for harm and mechanisms of toxicity remain difficult to determine.

Regulating the Tide of Plastics

While plastics deliver undeniable benefits to modern life, their status quo production and usage levels are unsustainable when considering pollution realities. Several countries and jurisdictions have instituted bans targeting primary microplastic sources like rinse-off cosmetics. But the root issue remains society’s reliance on single-use plastics that don’t biodegrade.

Reducing unnecessary plastic usage through alternatives, banning problematic items and improving waste management infrastructure offer the most straightforward solutions. Recycling programs still recover a modest fraction of used plastics, with most ending up discarded. Technology options under investigation seek to break plastics down completely or convert them to value-added materials.

As the long-term consequences of low-dose microplastic exposure and accumulation in wildlife and humans remain unknown, precautionary measures are prudent. Continued public education campaigns encourage individual actions like reducing consumption of bottled water. Ultimately, mitigating plastic pollution will take concerted, systematic efforts across many fronts to shift mindsets and industries away from treating plastics as disposables.

Our environment’s saturation with microplastics is unprecedented in Earth’s history. With constant microplastic generation outpacing degradation or removal, we’ve introduced a legacy of pollution that will far outlast the products generating them. While challenging to address, minimizing humanity’s plastic footprint is essential for ecosystem and public health. As research expands our understanding of impacts, regulations must empower solutions to curb microplastics at their source before harms accumulate further.


  1. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP13435


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About the Author

  • Dilruwan Herath

    Dilruwan Herath is a British infectious disease physician and pharmaceutical medical executive with over 25 years of experience. As a doctor, he specialized in infectious diseases and immunology, developing a resolute focus on public health impact. Throughout his career, Dr. Herath has held several senior medical leadership roles in large global pharmaceutical companies, leading transformative clinical changes and ensuring access to innovative medicines. Currently, he serves as an expert member for the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine on it Infectious Disease Commitee and continues advising life sciences companies. When not practicing medicine, Dr. Herath enjoys painting landscapes, motorsports, computer programming, and spending time with his young family. He maintains an avid interest in science and technology. He is a founder of DarkDrug

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