Study Finds Microplastics Inside Fruits and Vegetables

We can't get away from the stuff.

Fruit market in Italy

@JJFarquitectos via Twenty20

Just when you thought you were taking care of your health by eating enough fruit and vegetables every day, new research has come out revealing that you might be ingesting microplastic particles along with all those vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

A groundbreaking study published in the journal Environmental Research has found that fruits and vegetables absorb microplastic particles from the soil and translocate them through vegetal tissues, where they remain until eaten by hungry diners, thus getting transferred to human bodies. 

The researchers, who are from the University of Catania in Italy, as well as Sousse and Monastir universities in Tunisia, analyzed a variety of common fruits and vegetables – carrots, lettuce, broccoli, potatoes, apples, and pears. These were chosen for the fact that they are frequently consumed, usually one per day, which allowed the researchers to "better assess the dietary intakes of MPs (microplastic particles) and NPs (nano-plastics)." The samples were purchased from different sources in the city of Catania, including a small fruit vendor and supermarket.

The researchers found that apples, followed by pears, were the most contaminated fruit samples, and carrots were the most contaminated vegetable. Lettuce contained the smallest number of microplastic particles, though these were physically larger than the ones found in carrot samples. All samples were "characterized by wide variability." In the study's discussion section, the authors wrote,

"We can hypothesize that the fruits contain more MPs not only because of the very high vascularization of the fruit pulp but also due to the greater size and complexity of the root system and age of the tree (several years) compared to the vegetables (60–75 days for the carrot). Also, the carrot has small, microscopic hairs on the outside of the epidermis of the central root; these serve to increase the surface area of the root, but survive for only a few days."

Both adults' and children's Estimated Daily Intake of particles went up the most after eating apples, and the least after eating carrots. Children, however, took in more particles because of their lower body weights: "In fact, children ingest smaller quantities of all the studied vegetables and fruits but [their] exposures are greater than adults when considered in relation to body weight."

This study is important because it's the first to detect microplastics in edible fruits and vegetables. They have been found in other sources before, such as sea salt, beer, water (bottled, in particular), shellfish, sugar, soil, and even air, but never inside fresh produce. It's an alarming discovery that raises yet another red flag about microplastic pollution in the natural environment.

As Maria Westerbossaid, founder of the Plastic Soup Foundation, stated in a press release, "This is the first time we have known about plastic getting into vegetables. If it is getting into vegetables, it is getting into everything that eats vegetables, which means it is in our meat and dairy as well. What we need to find out now is what this is doing to us. This is unchartered territory. Does plastic make us sick?"

It's an area that will likely see a lot more attention in coming years, with the study authors calling for further research into the question of nanotoxicity and whether it harms the health of both plants and humans.