Researchers at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VUA) in the Netherlands report finding microplastic particles in food items in Dutch supermarkets and farms. So far, the possible health impacts of this development is unknown.
The ever-growing scale of microplastic contamination in the world around us has been making headlines for a few years now. Anyone following these developments closely has seen these diminutive pollutants be uncovered in ever-more unlikely environments and elements on the planet, from the depths of the ocean or the highest mountain peaks to organisms living in the ocean and, most recently, inside our bodies.
Needless to say, this steady encroachment of microplastics isn’t good news. But we now have a better idea of how these particles can find their way from the environment into our bodies. New research from the VUA found the first evidence of microplastic contamination in beef and pork, as well as in the blood of cows and pigs, and quantified the extent of this contamination in Dutch products. The study also found evidence of microplastics in milk.
Tastes like chicken?
The researchers found plastic microparticles in three-quarters of the meat and milk products they sampled, and in all blood samples that were part of the study. They were further identified in every single sample of animal pellet feed tested, showcasing the likely avenue of contamination. Despite this, the team notes that the plastic packaging used to ship and sell these products can also provide a source of microplastic contamination.
The team that performed these analyses is the same one responsible for the discovery of microplastics in human blood back in March, and the same methods were used in the present study.
The team worked with 12 samples of cows’ and pigs’ blood each. The microplastics found in these samples include materials such as polyethylene and polystyrene. Out of the 25 samples of milk from supermarket cartons, milk tanks on farms, and taken during hand-milking, a total of 18 — but at least one from each source — contained microplastics.
As far as meat products were concerned, 7 of the 8 beef samples analyzed and 5 of the 8 pork samples analyzed were similarly contaminated with microplastics.
So far, the impact these microplastics can pose to human or animal health is not known. Preliminary laboratory experiments have shown, however, that microplastics can cause damage to human cells in vitro. Particles of pollution are known to enter the human body from the air and are estimated to be responsible for millions of early deaths every year. Microplastics also seem to have an adverse effect on the health of certain wild species.
Taken together, these suggest that microplastics do have a negative impact on our health and that of our farm animals.
Microplastics are the final form that plastic waste, dumped in the wild, takes. They have, presently, contaminated the entire planet, due to the sheer quantity of plastic mass that is being thrown away daily; these include fabrics, containers, single-use items such as bottles and straws, plastic mass, and many other types of goods.
“When you’re measuring blood, you’re finding out the absorbed dose from all the different exposure routes: air, water, food, et cetera,” said Dr. Heather Leslie at VUA. “So it’s very interesting because it immediately tells you what’s penetrating into the river of life.”
“It should act as an impetus to further explore the full scope of exposure and any risks that may be associated with it”.
Although animals in other countries were not yet analyzed, the team notes that microplastics have been reported in milk purchased in Switzerland in 2021, and in farm milk from France.
The discovery of microplastics in animal feed makes it unsurprising that they would be discovered in the bodies of livestock and farm products. However, the study does showcase just how pervasive a problem microplastic pollution actually is, and that there is no place on the planet that can be considered beyond their reach — the Netherlands are some of the wealthiest areas on the globe.
Tackling microplastic pollution should thus become a key concern of policymakers around the world, as all of us likely carry such particles within our bodies. Research to understand how they impact our health, and how best to be rid of them, should also be a priority.
The study was commissioned by the Plastic Soup Foundation, a non-profit marine conservation organization that aims to reduce plastic pollution established in 2011. The paper “Plastic Particles in Livestock Feed, Milk, Meat and Blood – A Pilot Study” is available on their page here.