Microplastics are very well taking over our earth. It started when we began finding them in nature…animals consume them. They turned up in the guts of fish and shellfish. Even plants consume them.
These microplastics are plastic particles that measure less than a fifth of an inch across. They’ve been found all over the globe, from the top of Mount Everest to the floor of the world’s deepest ocean channel in the Philippines.1
Now we unwittingly consume them in our food and water, even our air. The question is, just how much harm are they causing? And what can we do about them?
We know the gist of what’s happening: plastics, which are omnipresent in our world, continuously break apart in the environment. They pare down to teensy particles smaller than a single strand of human hair—so small, in fact, they become airborne at the slightest breeze.
A few years ago, Belgian scientists warned that if you’re a seafood lover, you may be eating up to 11,000 plastic particles a year, particularly if you favor mussels.2 But then, Scottish researchers rivaled this threat of contaminated mussels and determined you take in more microplastics simply by breathing in plastic fibers—from clothes, carpets, and upholstery—than you do by eating mussels.3
Besides being a bit gross, where does that leave us? In a word, affected.
The awful truth about microplastics
Microplastics have since been found in the blood of blood and plasma donors, in the lungs of patients who’ve undergone surgery, in nearly every type of organism studied, and even in newborn babies.
This is alarming for a number of reasons. For one, particles tinier than 100 nanometers can even pass through the blood-brain barrier and contaminate individual cells.4
Worse is the fact that plastics are made from a multifaceted cocktail of chemicals and additives—not the kinds of things you want in your body. Many of these chemicals are neither tested nor regulated; at last count, the California State Water Resource Control Board reported at least 2,400 of those chemicals are of concern and 901 of those chemicals are not approved for use in food packaging.5
The deluge of microplastics isn’t likely to stop soon, either. In 2020, companies made roughly 367 million metric tons of plastics. That amount is expected to triple by 2050. According to a study published in the journal Science, 11 billion metric tons of plastic will accumulate in our environment by 2025, and 1,000 metric tons of tiny particles will be dispersed by the wind every year.6
At the very least, we know microplastics cause damage to human cells thanks to a review published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials. Affected processes include immune response, oxidative stress, and elevated cytotoxicity.7 In addition, the abundance of microplastics in our water-based and marine ecosystems effectively transfers toxic pollutants to human beings. These are carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that get captured within microplastics and are then absorbed by humans who ingest or breathe them in, elevating overall cancer risk.8
Contain cancer-causing chemicals
Now, because of the realization that microplastics are as ubiquitous as they are, coupled with the fact that this realization only took place in the last handful of years, we have yet to see major, full-scale studies on the cancer ramifications.
But do we even need studies to tell us this is a problem of epic proportions?
We know these microplastics are loaded with chemical additives and bisphenols, including but not limited to phthalates, heavy metals, PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), and EDCs (endocrine-disrupting chemicals).
Studies have already shown that PFAS disrupt the immune system, as we mentioned in a recent article. What’s more, the research suggests that EDCs can act as estrogen at low concentrations, and that exposure early in life may cause alterations in breast development and ultimately increase the risk of breast cancer as an adult.9
We also know that having a surplus of bisphenols and phthalates in your body during critical stages of development affect several aspects of the immune system and its function. That damage may very well be related to developing various diseases, including cancer.10
So, in my book, research on the hazards of these tiny plastics is not nearly as important as research on how to eradicate them from our bodies and our planet. Fortunately, that research is already taking place…
The answer lies in… gumbo?
Okra, the vegetable known in several English-speaking countries as ladies’ fingers, is a polarizing food: people seem to either love it or hate it. Chopped up and fried, it’s more likely to be a crowd pleaser. Boil it and you’re either going to have big fans or big haters. That’s because okra, when cooked with water, tends to take on a unique, slimy consistency.
Before we talk about the why behind the slime, know that okra is loaded with vitamins and antioxidants, many of which have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.11
But it’s the slime, also called mucilage, found inside okra that has a fascinating relevance to our microplastic problem. That mucilage, the thick and slimy substance found in fresh and dried okra pods, forms from polysaccharides associated with proteins and minerals. Because of this substance, okra that has been ingested smoothly sails down our colons, absorbing all toxins and excess water along the way.12
Researchers at Tarleton State University in Texas noted a similar effect on microplastics. As it turns out, the same extracts that make cooked okra turn goopy can be used to filter microplastics from wastewater.
Easier water filtration system
Usually, filtering wastewater is a two-step process that involves first skimming off floating microplastics and then removing the rest through the use of flocculants, which are a sticky type of chemical that attach to microplastics until they become large enough clumps to sink to the bottom of the water. Unfortunately, these flocculants can themselves be harmful, as many break down into toxic chemicals.13
But, when you put okra in the picture, you have a similar clumping effect without the potential toxins.14
It’s not just okra, either.
The researchers also tested polysaccharide extracts from other plants including fenugreek, cactus, tamarind, aloe vera, and psyllium (a type of natural, dietary fiber; you find it in products like Metamucil and many supplements for the digestive system).15
The polysaccharides from okra combined with those from fenugreek appear to be best at clumping microplastics found in ocean water, while the polysaccharides from okra and tamarind work best for freshwater. The Tarleton team is currently working on ways to optimize microplastic removal using different ratios and combinations, eventually hoping to commercialize this method.16
The internal cleansing machine
The takeaway here is pretty simple, given the magnitude of the microplastics problem: eat more okra. At the very least, the nutritional benefits will give your body a boost and ideally protect from disease down the line. But you may also get the added benefit of a safe and rapid internal cleansing as the mucilage carries dangerous microplastics out of your body.
If you simply can’t stand okra, try psyllium supplements. Both options seem like an easy, natural fix worth trying.