Everyday fruits and vegetables like carrots, lettuces and apples are contaminated with tiny particles of plastic and should be a cause for “considerable concern” among public health experts, scientists say.
Photo: REUTERS/Mike Blake
Researchers from the University of Catania in Italy discovered apples are among the most contaminated fruits, while carrots are the most affected vegetables.
The team studied plastic contamination in carrots, lettuces, broccoli, potatoes, apples, and pears. They concluded microplastics were “abundant” in the fresh food.
Fruits were more highly contaminated than vegetables, likely because fruit trees are older with deeper, more established root systems, they said.
Although the scientists found fewer plastic particles in fruits and vegetables studied than in the water from a plastic bottle, they still described their findings as cause for “considerable concern”.
“Based on the results obtained it is urgent important to perform toxicological and epidemiological studies to investigate for the possible eﬀects of microplastics on human health,” the study – published this week in the journal Environmental Research – warns.
Entry via the roots
Meanwhile a separate research team has proved for the first time that lettuce and wheat plants absorb microscopic plastic particles through their roots.
Water contaminated by microplastics can travel up a plant’s roots and into the shoots, the scientists discovered.
Their findings upend previous scientific assumptions that plastic particles – even the tiniest ones – are too large to pass through plant tissue.
Root vegetables such as carrots, radishes and turnips are most vulnerable to high levels of contamination, the scientists said, chiming with the findings of the University of Catania study.
The study was a joint project between the Leiden University in the Netherlands and the Yanthai Institute of Coastal Zone Research in China. It is to be published in the journal Nature Sustainability.
Urgent research required
Microplastics both absorb and give off chemicals and harmful pollutants. But little is known about their impact on human health, particularly if they are breathed in or eaten.
Professor Willie Peijnenburg, co-author of the Leiden University study, warned urgent research is needed. “The presence of microplastics in crop plants could potentially increase the direct exposure of humans to plastic associated chemicals,” he stated. “There is an urgent need to reduce plastic consumption and also to collect data on the impact of microplastic particles in the food chain on human health.”
His concerns were echoed by campaigners. “What we need to find out now is what this is doing to us. This is unchartered territory. Does plastic make us sick?” asked Maria Westerbos, founder of the Plastic Soup Foundation.
Sian Sutherland, co-founder of the campaign group A Plastic Planet, called for an urgent investigation into the impact of plastics on human health, calling on policymakers to “listen to the scientists”.