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Microplastics in Your Blood? California Takes Action

A sample of microplastics in house dust. Photo: Universiteit Utrecht.

Just weeks after California announced its campaign to eradicate microplastics, Dutch researchers found microplastics in the blood of 80% of local test subjects. Half the samples contained PET plastic (used in drink bottles), one third contained polystyrene (used in packaging and known as Styrofoam), and one quarter contained polyethylene (used in shopping bags). Given that the Netherlands is a Western, developed country with stringent environmental regulations, it’s likely Americans face similar or even higher levels of microplastic contamination. 

Once ingested, microplastics, or pieces of plastic less than five millimeters in size, disturb human hormone systems and cause cancer, diabetes, reproductive disorders, and neurological damage. California’s waterways are “saturated” with microplastics, which typically enter the environment as tires, synthetic textiles, cigarette filters and single-use plastic food-ware.

Because it’s “virtually impossible” to clean up microplastics once they are in the environment, California’s strategy relies on reducing future contamination through:

  • Banning certain product materials like polystyrene
  • Prioritizing reusability and limiting single-use plastic
  • Retrofitting stormwater and drainage infrastructure with better filtration systems
  • Stopping corporations from illegally discharging microplastics into waterways 

The popularity of California’s microplastic campaign first meets the ground this coming November, when Californians will vote on a ballot measure to require more packaging be recyclable, reusable, refillable, or compostable by 2030. However, even if adopted, it’s uncertain whether such a measure would have a significant impact on the harmful effects of plastic in the first place; recycled plastics leach even more chemicals into the environment than “virgin” plastic, and “reusable” plastic bags and containers are made with significantly thicker plastic and hardly reused in the first place, leading to even worse environmental outcomes than before. 

Even if California’s efforts to reduce microplastic contamination at the state-level, it’s unclear whether California’s actions alone will be able to make a significant impact on its residents’ exposure to microplastics, as plastic production is expected to double by 2050 and the total mass of plastics produced (all of which still exists) has already exceeded the overall mass of all land and marine life combined.