Global patterns of microplastic consumption and inhalation revealed

Southeast Asian countries top the global list for food consumption of microplastics, with Indonesians consuming around 15 grams of microplastics per month

A recent study by researchers at Cornell University has mapped human microplastic absorption across 109 countries, highlighting Southeast Asian nations like Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines as leading consumers of microplastics through food. Conversely, China, Mongolia, and the United Kingdom top the list of countries with the highest inhalation rates of microplastics.

Published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, the study is based on existing data models estimating the amount of microplastics ingested and inhaled by humans. To achieve more accurate estimates, researchers considered each country’s dietary habits, food processing technologies, demographic age, and breathing rates. This approach highlighted differences in microplastic consumption between various countries.

Fengqi You, a professor of energy systems engineering and co-author of the study with doctoral student Xiang Zhao, stated:

“The absorption of microplastics at the national level is a critical indicator of plastic pollution and public health risks. A comprehensive global mapping supports local pollution mitigation efforts through better water quality control and effective waste recycling.”

Why the increase in developing countries

The study found that Indonesians consume approximately 0.5 ounces of microplastics per month, mainly from aquatic sources like seafood. This represents a 59-fold increase in daily microplastic consumption from 1990 to 2018.

In the United States, dietary intake of microplastics is estimated at about 0.08 ounces per month, while the lowest intake was recorded in Paraguay at 0.03 ounces. Regarding inhaled microplastics, residents of China and Mongolia surpass 2.8 million particles per month.

In the United States, this figure is around 300,000 particles per month, whereas in Mediterranean countries like Spain, Portugal, and Hungary, inhalation ranges from 60,000 to 240,000 particles per month. You continued:

“Industrialization in developing economies, particularly in East and South Asia, has led to increased consumption of plastic materials, waste production, and human absorption of microplastics. In contrast, industrialized countries are experiencing a reverse trend, supported by greater economic resources to reduce and remove plastic debris.”

The study aims to inform customized microplastic reduction strategies for local economies and industrial contexts, promoting international collaboration to advance waste reduction strategies. According to the research, a 90% reduction in aquatic plastic debris could significantly decrease microplastic exposure.

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