Microplastics: harmful to our health?

Microplastic is a substancewhich has become more and more popular in recent years, because its traces can be found more and more frequently in the environment. Microplastics can be found in numerous everyday products, for example in cosmetics such as shower gel, peeling or toothpaste. However, the tiny plastic particles can also find their way into our food via detours. How does this affect our health? And how do you recognize products without microplastics? Find out here what is known about these questions so far.
What is microplastic?


As the name suggests, microplastics are microscopic plastic. According to a common definition, the tiny plastic particles are less than five millimeters in diameter, although in fact they are often significantly smaller.
Microplastics consist of solid, insoluble and non-biodegradable plastic such as polyethylene – we speak of synthetic polymers.


How is microplastic created?


On the basis of its origin, one differentiates between two different types of microplastic: primary and secondary microplastic.
The primary form is industrially manufactured plastic pellets and powder. In cosmetics such as shower gel or peelings, the small balls are added, for example, to achieve a massaging or “sanding” effect. But they also form the starting material for the manufacture of plastic products. This is also called primary type A microplastic.
This type of microplastic also includes fibers that, for example, get into the washing water when washing a piece of clothing made of polyester, as well as the abrasion from car tires, road markings, shoe soles or artificial turf. This is also known as type B primary microplastic – however, depending on the definition, it is also sometimes counted as secondary microplastic.
Secondary microplastic is created when larger plastic parts or plastic waste decay , for example when plastic bags or fishing nets are slowly decomposed by the sun and weather.


Environmental hazards


Environmentalists sharply criticize the industrial use of microplastics. Because the small plastic parts in our everyday products are flushed into the sewage treatment plants via the wastewater, where they cannot be completely filtered out.
Over time, they get into the sea via rivers . Once they get there, they cannot be removed and they have been a burden on the environment for centuries.
Due to its structural nature, the microplastic floating in the sea attracts environmental toxins and bacteria and collects them on its surface. The plastic particles are then eaten by marine life such as fish or mussels. The microplastic enriched with pollutants not only affects marine organisms, but also ends up on our plates again.
Microplastics also end up in our environment through the fertilization of agricultural areas with sewage sludge or the use of compost from biogas plants – but then into the soil.


How does microplastic get into our body?


How microplastics can get into our body has not yet been clearly established. It is undisputed that it can be detected almost everywhere in the environment. The plastic particles can be found not only in the soil, water and marine animals, but also in the air . In theory, they can get into our food chain not only through the consumption of marine animals, but also through cultivated products such as vegetables . It is also assumed that we inhale or consume microplastics with the air when the particles settle on the food.
Researchers have also been able to detect microplastics in human stool samples . Due to the small number of participants in the pilot study, however, it was not possible to clarify whether the particles came from, for example, eaten marine life, from food wrapped in plastic or from other sources. The find also says nothing about the health effects – only that the body is able to excrete the particles again.
Cosmetics , on the other hand, probably do not directly contribute to our ingestion of microplastics. According to the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), microplastic particles in cosmetics are too large to penetrate the skin, so that, according to the BfR, they do not pose a direct health risk. 

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