Effects of Microplastics and PFAS on Human Health

April 7, 2022

A recent study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials found that when scientists analyzed the health of volunteer subjects, 80% had microplastics present in their blood cells. Microplastics are plastic particles smaller than 5mm, or about 1/5 of an inch. These tiny particles may consist of manufacturing materials, scraps of water bottles, microfibers from clothing, food wrappers, glitter, and other common items. The plastic often ends up in  the ocean, breaks into smaller pieces, and lodges into our seafood; especially shellfish. This doesn’t  just have a lasting effect on us and our food, but an entire ocean ecosystem that is being polluted. Microplastics are a Contaminant of Emerging Concern (CECs), which also includes PFAS or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Found in 97% of human blood in the U.S., PFAS are called “forever chemicals” as they persist in the environment. These contaminants have drastic effects on the human body, ranging from liver damage to various cancers.

Microplastics are less than 5mm while nanoplastics are less than 1000nm

Microplastics & Harm to Human Health

Whether we’re aware of it or not, because we consume microplastics through our drinking water and the food we eat; a majority of us have these contaminants present in our blood cells. Microplastics have the ability to travel throughout our bodies and even lodge in our organs. There are major concerns that these particles damage human cells and lead to early deaths each year. Nanoplastics are even smaller plastic particles, typically 1 to 1000 nanometers in size. A typical human hair is anywhere between 80,000 and 100,000 nanometers wide, making nanoplastics all but invisible to the naked eye. Often a byproduct of the manufacturing and degradation of plastic processes, nanoplastics have been detected in the deepest corners of the natural world. The United Nations projects plastic pollution is on course to double by 2030, making a massive problem even worse.

PFAS: A Forever Chemical Found in Human Blood

PFAS are often used in popcorn bags, fast food wrappers, firefighting foam (AFFF), non-stick cookware, single-use food containers, and other everyday items. Its most useful property is that it resists heat, stains, grease, oils, and water. PFAS are commonly exposed to humans through disposing of these products into landfills and circulating back into our groundwater and drinking water. These chemicals are difficult to break down in nature and often a difficult chemical to detect as well. Though there is no safe level of exposure, a high majority of people in the U.S. have some level of PFAS in their blood.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, PFAS has been linked to many health ailments including kidney cancer, testicular cancer, decreased fertility, thyroid disease, liver damage, and more. Government entities are beginning to establish regulation around PFAS levels in drinking water, but many municipalities and businesses are scurrying to find answers to remediate this toxic problem.

All PFAS contain a chain of carbon atoms bonded to fluorine atoms, the basis for its structure.

What Can We Do?

The first thing we can do as humans is limit our use of plastic, microplastics, and PFAS. As consumers, we should research what common food items have these and seek out products that last longer and use more sustainable materials. So many fast food restaurants use PFAS in their packaging, look online to avoid those items prior to ordering at your favorite eateries. As a society, it’s imperative that we adopt the latest clean technologies that are looking to fix this larger problem with microplastics and PFAS. The current methods of getting rid of this waste include anaerobic digestion, incineration, and pollution. Anaerobic digestion is a process in which microorganisms essentially eat away at the organic materials in the absence of oxygen. Currently considered as one of the lower cost options, it does not adequately eliminate microplastics of PFAS and we’re left spreading these contaminants back into the environment.

How Can We Use Technology?

374Water’s AirSCWO™ technology uses supercritical water oxidation (SCWO) to transform the simplest and most complex wastes like PFAS to valuable recoverable resources. SCWO is a physical-thermal process that uses water above its critical point (374°C and 221 bar) as a solvent. In these conditions, in the presence of oxygen, any organic molecules are rapidly oxidized and converted to clean water, energy, inert gasses, and minerals. 374Water’s AirSCWO™ technology significantly alters how we manage the waste our society generates. It is a disruptive technology that is moving us from conventional linear waste treatment and disposal to innovation that enables a circular economy and shifts the industry to true resource recovery. With plastic production doubling within the next decade, it’s important that we rely on cleantech to help reverse the problem that we created and give the next generation of people an opportunity to thrive.

By Mark Stansbury

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