Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, lead the world in the per capita ingestion of microplastics through their diets. Meanwhile, China, Mongolia, and the United Kingdom are at the forefront of countries where microplastic inhalation is most prevalent.

This information comes from a recent study by Cornell University, which analyzed microplastic uptake across 109 countries. The study was a deep dive into the quantities of microplastics humans consume and inhale due to the ongoing degradation of untreated plastic debris in the environment.

Published in Environmental Science & Technology on April 24, the study aims to provide a detailed look at how microplastics make their way into human systems. The research incorporates factors like local dietary habits, food processing techniques, age demographics, and respiratory rates to create a comprehensive image of microplastic consumption.

This detailed approach reveals why microplastic uptake varies significantly from country to country.

Fengqi You, a professor in Energy Systems Engineering, and doctoral student Xiang Zhao led the study. They stress that understanding microplastic uptake at the national level is crucial for identifying pollution hotspots and assessing public health risks. The insights from this global mapping can also drive local efforts to improve water quality and promote effective waste recycling practices.

Dietary Uptake

The study evaluated the dietary intake of microplastics by looking at microplastic concentrations in various food categories, such as fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains, dairy, drinks, sugars, salt, and spices.

For example, both Indonesia and the U.S. have similar per capita consumption of table salt, but Indonesian table salt contains microplastic concentrations that are about 100 times higher than those in the U.S.

In this context, Indonesians consume more microplastics through their diet than any other country, amounting to approximately 15 grams per month. Seafood is a significant contributor to this high rate of consumption.

In contrast, people in the U.S. consume about 2.4 grams of microplastics per month, while Paraguay residents have the lowest average intake at 0.85 grams per month.

Airborne Uptake

The study also explored how airborne microplastics contribute to human exposure.

This is where China and Mongolia lead the list, with residents inhaling over 2.8 million microplastic particles per month. By comparison, people in the U.S. inhale around 300,000 particles per month.

In Mediterranean regions like Spain, Portugal, and Hungary, inhalation rates are notably lower, ranging from 60,000 to 240,000 particles per month.

Economic and Industrial Influences

Economic and industrial factors play a significant role in microplastic exposure. Increased industrialization in East and South Asia has escalated plastic consumption and waste production, leading to higher human uptake of microplastics.

Developed countries, armed with better financial resources, are witnessing a reverse trend due to improved mechanisms for reducing and removing plastic debris.

Fengqi You noted that the findings could help tailor strategies to reduce microplastic exposure, taking into account local economic conditions and industrial contexts. However, such efforts will require international partnerships, with developed nations providing technological assistance to developing regions.

Potential Solutions

To address these challenges, the study suggests a multifaceted approach:

  • Sustainable Packaging: Developing materials that minimize environmental impact.
  • Waste Management: Enforcing stricter regulations to manage and recycle waste effectively.
  • Advanced Water Treatment: Innovating new techniques to remove plastic debris from water sources.

A significant reduction in aquatic plastic debris could result in a substantial decrease in microplastic exposure, potentially cutting it by up to 51% in developed countries and by 49% in rapidly industrializing regions.

International Collaboration

The study’s publication coincides with a significant meeting of an international committee negotiating the U.N. Plastics Treaty. This treaty aims to establish global rules on plastic production and disposal.

Once finalized, it is expected to foster international cooperation to reduce microplastics, especially in marine environments.

Xiang Zhao emphasized that cleaning global surface water systems is akin to a marathon, influenced by local industrial and socioeconomic factors. The detailed global maps produced by the study can help identify key areas for intervention, while the findings highlight the need for comprehensive strategies involving sustainable packaging solutions, stringent waste management regulations, and improved water treatment technologies.

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