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Set down your mug.
Steeping a single premium teabag in a cup of hot water releases billions of plastic microparticles and nanoparticles into your tea.
This disturbing information was discovered in a study conducted at McGill University in Canada and published on September 25, 2019, in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology.
Researchers purchased four brands of premium teas, packaged in plastic mesh teabags. Whereas teabags have traditionally been made of paper, the plastic mesh type is becoming increasingly common. Plastic mesh is appealing because it holds a pyramid shape, which may help the tea infuse more evenly.
The study at McGill University found that a single teabag, steeped at a typical brewing temperature (95°C), released 11.6 billion microparticles and 3.1 billion nanoparticles of plastics into a cup of water. This amount was said to be “several orders of magnitude higher than plastic loads previously reported in other foods.”
Wait…plastics in other foods? This raises so many questions. Let’s try to answer some.
What are Microplastics?
Microplastics are defined as tiny particles of plastic that are smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter. That’s about the size of a character on a computer keyboard. Many microplastics are on the order of 100 nanometers, which is about the width of a human hair. Still others are a thousand times smaller and invisible to the naked eye.
Microplastics are ubiquitous in the environment. They have been found in rivers, ponds, lakes, and oceans. They are in freshwater, wastewater, tap water, bottled water, food, and even in the air. Microplastics have been detected in places that range from the rain over the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to the sea ice of Antarctica.
Most microplastics come from the breakdown of larger plastics. Other microplastics are designed by humans. Until 2015, tiny pieces of polyethylene plastics (called microbeads) were added to toothpastes, exfoliant cleansers, and cosmetics. Microbeads were banned with the passage of the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015.
Because of such extensive environmental contamination with plastic, people and other animals consume microplastics every day. In a study published in January of 2019, researchers examined 50 marine animals along Britain’s shores. They found that every single animal found dead along the coast—including dolphins, seals, and whales—had ingested microplastics and had them inside their digestive tracts.
What Foods Contain Microplastics?
Bottled waters lead the pack for contamination with microplastics. Research led by Orb Media and conducted at the State University of New York at Fredonia evaluated 250 bottles of water from 11 leading bottled water brands from nine countries around the world.
The study found that 93% of the bottles showed signs of microplastic contamination. Although some bottles of water had no detectable plastic, other bottles had thousands. The overall average across all brands was 325 plastic particles per liter of bottled water.
Bottled water aside, studies have detected microplastics in seafood, honey, salt, sugar, and beer. In a review of studies that was published in June of 2019, researchers estimated that Americans consume between 39,000 and 52,000 particles of plastic from foods each year. Here are some common sources of plastics in food:
- Canned Foods. Food cans are commonly lined with bisphenol-A (BPA), which is a plastic that can leech into the food.
- Plastic Packaging. Think about all the foods you buy that are wrapped, packaged, or contained in plastic. There are frozen meals, take-out meals, prepared salads, meats, cheese, crackers, and cereal. How much plastic leeches into the food in these packaging is still up for debate.
- Table Salt. Considering that our oceans are contaminated with plastics, it’s no surprise that our salt is too. Sourcing salt from more pristine areas of the world might be the best way to minimize plastic exposure from salt.
- Beer. Studies have found that microplastics contaminate at least 12 brands of American beer—likely because of the tap water used to brew the beer.
- Fish and Chicken. Most studies have only looked for microplastics in the digestive tracts of marine animals. However, there is some evidence that these microplastics make their way into the fish we eat. Microplastics have also been detected in chickens raised in gardens in Mexico.
Microplastics are not regulated in bottled water or foods. There are no set limits and no routine monitoring for contamination.
Do Microplastics Affect Health?
After Orb Media found microplastics in most bottled waters, the World Health Organization launched an initiative to determine whether these plastics pose any risk to human health. In the report released in August of 2019, WHO stated the following:
“The human health risk from microplastics in drinking-water is a function of both hazard and exposure. Potential hazards associated with microplastics come in three forms: the particles themselves which present a physical hazard, chemicals (unbound monomers, additives, and sorbed chemicals from the environment), and microorganisms that may attach and colonize on microplastics, known as biofilms. Based on the limited evidence available, chemicals and microbial pathogens associated with microplastics in drinking-water pose a low concern for human health. Although there is insufficient information to draw firm conclusions on the toxicity of nanoparticles, no reliable information suggests it is a concern.”
This statement may not be enough to alleviate your worries about the health effects of microplastics. There are still many unanswered questions. We don’t entirely understand where these particles accumulate in the body or what systems they affect. There is evidence that BPA disrupts endocrine function and other plastics may affect immune health.
How Can I Avoid Microplastics?
In short—you can’t. Microplastics are an environmental contaminant that you cannot entirely avoid. However, you can take steps to minimize your exposure:
- Bring your own container to take leftovers home from restaurants
- Cook from scratch rather than purchasing pre-packaged meals
- Grow your own vegetables are purchase from a Farmer’s Market or CSA to minimize plastic bags and packaging
- Purchase foods like grains and nuts from the bulk section rather than in plastic packaging
- Choose canned foods that have BPA-free lining
- Avoid buying frozen foods because most are packaged in plastic
- Make your own fresh-squeezed juice rather than buying it in plastic bottles
- Use a reusable glass water bottle rather than disposable plastic water bottles
- Avoid microwaving in plastic
- Store food in glass rather than plastic
In addition to minimizing your personal exposure to microplastics, you can also take measures to decrease the burden of plastic pollution on the earth. You make choices every day in the products you purchase, use, and throw away.
The discovery that premium teabags leech plastic particles into your cup of tea is just a small piece of the puzzle. Let’s take it as a reminder that we need to be conscious every day about our choices for our health, our nutrition, and our planet.
About the Author
Sarah Cook, ND, is an instructor at the Nutrition Therapy Institute. She is also the owner of ND Pen, providing branding, copywriting, and website design services for integrative healthcare practitioners. Connect with Sarah at www.ndpen.com.
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