We’ve known for a while that plastics are ubiquitous. They are part of pretty much all consumer products made in the last decades and have been polluting our oceans, lands and foods since. We are now investigating how ubiquitous plastics are and, more importantly, the potential effects on our health and the environment.
This is an emerging area of research and there is a lot we don’t know. In comparison, climate change was researched as far back as the late 1890s, but we must start somewhere now.
We have barely started to quantify “everywhere”, but since we are at the start of the research there is little to no standard on how to do this, and most results can’t be directly compared. We are talking about quantifying the ubiquitousness of plastic, and haven’t started on the potential effects on our health and the environment.
One research team did a review of the literature about human animal consumption of microplastics that was available in 2019. They found that on average we consume between 81,000 to 123,000 pieces of microplastics per year. That was a sample representing merely 15% of our caloric intake. They posit the real number might be several hundreds of thousands per year since an estimate of the amount of microplastics from the air that settles on food during a meal means we are potentially ingesting an additional 13,731 to 68,415.
What does this mean? To give us a rough idea, consider microplastics are defined as any plastics smaller than 5 mm, but some studies found that around 30 to 40% of microplastics are between 0.30 and 1 mm, and 94% are less than 1 mm. Assuming all microplastics are beads and have an average size of 0.50 mm in diameter, we get very concerning results. Under those assumptions, if we consume 100,000 pieces of microplastics per year, it would be like consuming a ball of plastic measuring 5 meters in diameter per year or 13.7 mm per day.
For the first time in history, scientific research has shown that we are made mostly of water and now also plastics. It was found that the mean concentration of plastic particles in the blood of human animals was 1.6 micrograms per millilitre.
At this time, we have no idea what the impact of this is, but it’s obvious that ingesting a ball of plastic 13.7 mm in diameter per day is detrimental. Many species of sea animals have also been contaminated by plastics, again with unclear consequences to them and anyone who eats them. We also have to take into account the serious problem of mercury in sea animals, which seems to be getting worse due in part to climate change.
Consumer Reports, not an organization that exists for the sole purpose of achieving our vision, disagrees with various government regulators about the consumption of sea animals. It recommends pregnant women avoid canned tuna altogether and has stricter limits for children.
Due to the materialistic nature of our society, we generally operate under the “graveyard regulations” principle. We approve various products and services with little to no studies on their long-term safety, and when we do, we rely on industry-funded research. Various scandals over the years have demonstrated that there is a revolving door policy between regulators and the businesses they are supposed to regulate.
Most regrettably, we only create new regulations after too many animals have already died. We have seen this with airplanes, cars, opiates, lead, asbestos, and tobacco, to name a few. It’s unlikely that if we fast forward 100 years and society as we know it still exists, science will conclude that ingesting microplastics is good for us; the best we can hope for is that it is harmless.
We will continue to follow the science on this topic as it evolves over the next years and decades, but we can’t wait to take action. The vegan philosophy requires that we act according to the precautionary principle. Considering all these factors, it seems that as far as our health is concerned, let alone the ethical consideration of killing and exploiting, it would be wise to stay away from eating sea animals altogether. By the same principle, it would also be wise to avoid the use of plastics, and not merely with token gestures like banning plastic straws.