(CNN) — “How much plastic do you want for dinner, sir? What about you, ma’am?” Although it may seem like a phrase taken from a satirical sketch on Saturday Night Live, research shows that it is not far from reality.

According to a February 2024 study, 90% of animal and plant protein samples tested positive for microplastics, tiny polymer fragments that can range from less than 5 millimeters (0.2 inches) to 1 micrometer (1/25,000 of inch). Anything smaller than 1 micrometer is a nanoplastic that must be measured in billionths of a meter.

Not even vegetarians are spared, according to a 2021 study. If the plastic is small enough, fruits and vegetables can absorb microplastics through their root systems and transfer those chemical bits to the stems, leaves, seeds and fruits of the plant. plant.

Salt can also be full of plastic. A 2023 study found that coarse pink Himalayan salt extracted from the ground contained the most microplastics, followed by black salt and sea salt. Sugar is also “a major route of human exposure to these micropollutants,” according to a 2022 study.

Even tea bags, many of which are made of plastic, can release huge amounts of plastic. Researchers at McGill University in Quebec, Canada, found that brewing a single plastic tea bag releases about 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastic particles into water.

Rice is another culprit. A study from the University of Queensland found that for every 100 grams (1/2 cup) of rice, between three and four milligrams of plastic are consumed, a figure that shoots up to 13 milligrams per serving in the case of instant rice. (According to researchers, washing rice can reduce plastic pollution by up to 40%. That also helps reduce arsenic, which can be high in rice.)

Let’s not forget bottled water. One liter of water, the equivalent of two standard-sized water bottles in the United States, contains an average of 240,000 plastic particles from seven different types of plastics, including nanoplastics, according to a March 2024 study.

Hazards to human health

Although microplastics have been found in humans such as the lung, maternal and fetal placental tissues, breast milk and blood, until recently there had been little research into how these polymers affect the body’s organs and functions.

A March 2024 study found that people with microplastics or nanoplastics in their neck arteries were twice as likely to have a heart attack, stroke, or die from any cause within three years than people without them. They had.

According to experts, nanoplastics are the type of plastic pollution most worrying for human health. This is because the tiny particles can invade individual cells and tissues in major organs, potentially disrupting cellular processes and depositing endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as bisphenols, phthalates, flame retardants, perfluorinated and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS). and heavy metals.

“All of these chemicals are used in the making of plastic, so if a plastic comes to us, it carries those chemicals with it,” Sherri “Sam” Mason, director of sustainability at Penn State Behrend in Erie, Pennsylvania, told CNN. , in a previous interview.

“And because the body temperature is higher than the outside temperature, those chemicals are going to migrate out of that plastic and end up in our body,” Mason said.

“These chemicals can reach the liver, kidneys and brain, and even cross the placenta and end up in the fetus,” he added.

“There is currently no scientific consensus on the possible health impacts of nano- and microplastic particles. Therefore, media reports based on assumptions and conjecture only unnecessarily frighten the public,” he previously stated. a spokesperson for the International Bottled Water Association, an industry association, told CNN.

All types of proteins contained microplastics

In the February study, published in Environmental Research, researchers analyzed more than a dozen commonly consumed proteins, including beef, breaded shrimp and other types of shrimp, chicken breasts and nuggets, pork, seafood, tofu and several plant-based meat alternatives, such as nuggets, ground beef-like vegetable chunks, and fish-flavored vegetarian bars.

Breaded shrimp contained the most tiny plastics, averaging more than 300 microplastics per serving. Veggie nuggets were second, with fewer than 100 pieces per serving, followed by chicken nuggets, haddock sticks, minimally processed Gulf white shrimp, fresh Key West pink shrimp, and a “fish” stick. vegetable.

The least contaminated proteins were chicken breasts, followed by pork loin chops and tofu.
After comparing the results with consumer data, the researchers estimated that the average exposure of American adults to microplastics could range between 11,000 and 29,000 particles per year, with an estimated maximum exposure of 3.8 million microplastics per year.

Fruits and vegetables with high plastic content

The oceans are full of plastics, and several studies have captured how these end up in the seafood we eat. However, fewer studies have looked at vegetables and proteins from land animals, such as cattle and pigs, according to an August 2020 study.

The study, published in Environmental Science, found between 52,050 and 233,000 plastic particles smaller than 10 micrometers (each micrometer is approximately the diameter of a raindrop) in various fruits and vegetables.

Apples and carrots were the most contaminated fruits and vegetables, respectively, with more than 100,000 microplastics per gram. The smallest particles were found in carrots, while the largest pieces of plastic were found in lettuce, which was also the least contaminated vegetable.

Plastics are everywhere

According to a recent analysis, there is a staggering number of plastics in the world today: 16,000 plastic chemicals, of which at least 4,200 are considered “highly hazardous” to human health and the environment.

As these chemicals break down in the environment, they can become microplastics and then nanoplastics, particles so small that science had a hard time seeing them for decades.

A recent study using entirely new technology found that the number of nanoplastics in three popular brands of water sold in the United States ranges from 110,000 to 370,000 per liter, if not more. One liter is equivalent to about two 16-ounce bottled waters. (The authors declined to mention which brands of bottled water they studied.)

Previous research using older technology had only identified about 300 nanoplastics in bottled water, along with larger microplastics.

Ways to reduce plastic

The contamination levels detected in bottled water reinforce experts’ long-standing advice to drink tap water from glass or stainless steel containers to reduce exposure, Mason says. This advice also extends to other foods and drinks packaged in plastic, he added.

“People don’t think plastics come off, but they do,” he said. “Almost in the same way that we constantly shed skin cells, plastics constantly shed small pieces that break, like when we open the plastic container of the salad we bought at the store or a cheese wrapped in plastic.”

As science learns more about the plastics we consume, there are things people can do to reduce their exposure, according to experts.

  • Avoid eating anything that has been stored in a plastic container. Look for foods stored in glass, porcelain, or aluminum foil.
  • Wear clothes made from natural fabrics and buy consumer products made from natural materials.
  • Don’t use plastics in the microwave. Instead, heat food on the stove or in the microwave in glass containers.
  • If you can, consume as much fresh food as possible, and limit the purchase of processed and ultra-processed foods wrapped in plastic.