The average person consumes at least 50,000 microplastics annually from the food they eat, according to a new report published Wednesday in the American Chemical Society’s journal Environmental Science & Technology.
The actual amount could be much higher, however, because the team of researchers was only able to review data for food accounting for 15% of an average American’s diet. The researchers also found that people breathe in a comparable amount of microplastics each year.
The study further illustrates the intricate ways in which plastic pollution has contaminated the global environment.
Previous studies have shown how people consume plastic through bottled and tap water, as well as salt. Other studies have shown how plastic pervades the air and can be found in people’s stool.
One 2018 study estimated that the average person consumes 70,000 microplastics per year simply from the tiny bits of plastic floating in the air that land on food after it’s set out on a plate.
The researchers of this new report relied on data from 26 previous analyses of microplastic found in fish, bivalves, honey, salt, sugar, beer, water, air, and other subjects.
They then consulted US dietary guidelines to calculate how many microplastics a person would consume depending on daily calorie intake levels.
Read More: ‘Biodegradable’ Shopping Bags Aren’t Breaking Down Like We Thought, Study Finds
Further analysis on other types of food such as bread, fruit, and meat would have to be done in follow-up research to get a more accurate understanding of overall plastic consumption.
“It is really highly likely there is going to be large amounts of plastic particles in [other foods],” Kieran Cox, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Victoria in Canada who led the research, told the Guardian. “You could be heading into the hundreds of thousands.”
The health effects of microplastic consumption are unclear, but it’s likely that they carry toxins into the body, and can even get embedded in tissue where they can cause harmful inflammatory reactions. Marine animals, meanwhile, regularly die from accidental plastic consumption.
Read More: Whale Found With 88 Pounds of Plastic in Stomach Shows Urgency of Zero Waste Movement
Avoiding microplastics is difficult, because it contaminates food at all stages of its path from point of production to kitchen counter.
However, ordinary people can take a few actions to significantly cut down on how much plastic they ingest. First, the researchers encourage people to drink tap water over bottled water because it contains far less microplastic contamination.
People can also support companies that are investing in plastic alternatives.
Read More: The 10 Best Ways to Reduce Your Plastic Footprint, According to Science
Finally, avoiding single-use plastic packaging by buying in bulk and carrying tote bags and reusable eating containers can significantly reduce plastic exposure.
“Removing single-use plastic from your life and supporting companies that are moving away from plastic packaging is going to have a non-trivial impact,” Cox told the Guardian. “The facts are simple. We are producing a lot of plastic and it is ending up in the ecosystems, which we are a part of.”