There is plastic in our flesh

Our way of life is poisoning us. Maybe this has been our fate all along, to achieve final communion with our garbage

By Mark O’Connell

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Published: Sat 22 Apr 2023, 7:29 PM

There is plastic in our bodies; it’s in our lungs and our bowels and in the blood that pulses through us. We can’t see it, and we can’t feel it, but it is there. It is there in the water we drink and the food we eat, and even in the air that we breathe. We don’t know, yet, what it’s doing to us, because we have only quite recently become aware of its presence; but since we have learned of it, it has become a source of profound and multifarious cultural anxiety.

Maybe it’s nothing; maybe it’s fine. Maybe this jumble of fragments — bits of water bottles, tires, polystyrene packaging, microbeads from cosmetics — is washing through us and causing no particular harm. But even if that were true, there would still remain the psychological impact of the knowledge that there is plastic in our flesh. This knowledge registers, in some vague way, as apocalyptic; it has the feel of a backhanded divine vengeance, sly and poetically appropriate. Maybe this has been our fate all along, to achieve final communion with our own garbage.


The word we use, when we speak about this unsettling presence within us, is microplastics. It’s a broad category, accommodating any piece of plastic less than five millimetres, about a fifth of an inch, in length. Much of this stuff, tiny though it is, is readily visible to the naked eye. You may have seen it in the photographs used to illustrate articles on the topic: a multitude of tiny, many-coloured shards displayed on the tip of a finger, or a lurid little heap on a teaspoon. But there is also, more worryingly still, the stuff you can’t see: so-called nano-plastics, which are a tiny fraction of the size of microplastics. These are capable of crossing the membranes between cells and have been observed to accumulate in the brains of fish.

We have known for a while now that they are causing harm to fish. In a study published in 2018, fish exposed to microplastics were shown to have lower levels of growth and reproduction; their offspring, even when they were not themselves exposed, were observed as also having fewer young, suggesting that the contamination lingers through the generations. In 2020, another study, at James Cook University in Australia, demonstrated that microplastics alter the behaviour of fish, with higher levels of exposure resulting in fish taking more risks and, as a consequence, dying younger.


Last month, the Journal of Hazardous Materials published a study examining the effects of plastic consumption on seabirds. The researchers put forward evidence of a new plastic-induced fibrotic disease they call plasticosis. Scarring on the intestinal tract caused by ingestion of plastics, they found, caused the birds to become more vulnerable to infection and parasites; it also damaged their capacity to digest food and to absorb certain vitamins.

It’s not, of course, the welfare of fish or seabirds that makes this information most worrying. If we — by which I mean human civilisation — cared about fish and seabirds, we would not, in the first place, be dumping some 11 million metric tons of plastic into the oceans every year. What’s truly unsettling is the prospect that similar processes may turn out to be at work in our own bodies, that microplastics might be shortening our lives, and making us stupider and less fertile while they’re at it. As the authors of the report on plasticosis put it, their research “raises concerns for other species impacted by plastic ingestion” — a category which very much includes our own species.

Because just as fish must swim through the blizzard of trash we have made of the seas, we ourselves cannot avoid the stuff. One of the more unsettling elements of the whole microplastics situation — we can’t really call it a “crisis” at this point, because we just don’t know how bad it might be — is its strangely democratic pervasiveness. Unlike, say, the effects of climate change, no matter who you are, or where you live, you are exposed. You could live in a secure compound in the most remote of locations — safe from forest fires and rising sea levels — and you would be exposed to microplastics in a shower of rain. Scientists have found microplastics near the summit of Everest, and in the Mariana Trench, 36,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific.

In this context, most of the changes we make to try to protect ourselves from microplastic ingestion come to seem basically cosmetic. You can, for instance, stop giving your toddler water in a plastic cup, and it might make you feel like you’re doing something about her level of exposure, but only until you start thinking about all those PVC pipes the water had to pass through to get to her in the first place.

In a study conducted last year, in which researchers in Italy analysed the breast milk of 34 healthy new mothers, microplastics were present in 75 per cent of the samples. A particularly cruel irony, this, given the association of breast milk with purity and naturalness, and given new parents’ anxieties about heating formula in plastic bottles. This research itself came in the wake of the revelation, in 2020, that microplastics had been found in human placentas. It seems to have become something close to definitional: To be human is to contain plastic.

To consider this reality is to glimpse a broader truth that our civilisation, our way of life, is poisoning us. There is a strange psychic logic at work here; in filling the oceans with the plastic detritus of our purchases, in carelessly disposing of the evidence of our own inexhaustible consumer desires, we have been engaging in something like a process of repression. And, as Freud insisted, the elements of experience that we repress — memories, impressions, fantasies — remain “virtually immortal; after the passage of decades they behave as though they had just occurred.” This psychic material, “unalterable by time,” was fated to return, and to work its poison on our lives.

Is this not what is going on with microplastics? The whole point of plastic, after all, is that it’s virtually immortal. From the moment it became a feature of mass-produced consumer products, between First and Second World Wars, its success as a material has always been inextricable from the ease with which it can be created, and from its extreme durability. What’s most useful about it is precisely what makes it such a problem. And we keep making more of the stuff, year after year, decade after decade. Consider this fact: of all the plastic created, since mass production began, more than half of it has been produced since 2000. We can throw it away, we can fool ourselves into thinking we’re “recycling” it, but it will not absent itself. It will show up again, in the food we eat and the water we drink. Like a repressed memory, it remains, unalterable by time.

Writing in the 1950s, as mass-produced plastic was coming to define material culture in the West, the French philosopher Roland Barthes saw the advent of this “magical” stuff effecting a shift in our relationship to nature. “The hierarchy of substances,” he wrote, “is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticised, and even life itself since, we are told, they are beginning to make plastic aortas.”

To pay attention to our surroundings is to become aware of how right Barthes was. As I type these words, my fingertips are pressing down on the plastic keys of my laptop; the seat I’m sitting on is cushioned with some kind of faux-leather-effect polymer; even the gentle ambient music I’m listening to as I write is being pumped directly to my cochleas by way of plastic Bluetooth earphones. These things may not be a particularly serious immediate source of microplastics. But sometime after they reach the end of their usefulness, you and I may wind up consuming them as tiny fragments in the water supply. In the ocean, polymers contained in paint are the largest source of these particles, while on land, dust from tires, and tiny plastic fibres from things like carpets and clothing, are among the main contributors.

In 2019, a study commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature found that the average person may be consuming as much as five grams of plastic every week — the equivalent, as the report’s authors put it, of an entire credit card. The wording was somewhat vague; if we may be consuming the equivalent of a credit card, we can assume that we may equally be consuming much less. But the report was widely circulated in the media, and its startling claims captured an anxious public imagination. The choice of the credit card as an image had some role to play here; the idea that we are eating our own purchasing power, that we might be poisoning ourselves with our insistent consumerism, burrows into the unconscious like a surrealist conceit. When I think of it, I can’t help picturing myself putting my Visa card in a blender and adding it to a smoothie.

David Cronenberg’s recent film Crimes of the Future opens with a startling scene of a small boy crouching in a bathroom and eating a plastic wastepaper basket like an Easter egg. The film’s premise, or part of it, is that certain humans have evolved the capacity to eat and take nutrition from plastic, and from other toxic substances. “It’s time for human evolution to sync with human technology,” as one such character puts it. “We’ve got to start feeding on our own industrial waste, it’s our destiny.”

As grotesque as the plot device is, it’s also a perversely optimistic one: Our best hope might be an evolutionary leap that allows us to live in the mess we’ve made. (Although arguably it’s only optimistic in the way that Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is optimistic.) In interviews around the time of the film’s release, Mr. Cronenberg revealed a preoccupation with the recent news about the presence of microplastics in human bloodstreams: “Maybe 80 per cent of the human population has microplastics in their flesh,” he said in one interview. “So, our bodies are different than human bodies have ever been before in history. This is not going away.”

As a parent, I am suspended between the desire to shield my children from microplastics — along with all the other things I want to shield them from — and the suspicion that the effort might be largely futile. A quick Google search revealed that these anxieties are increasingly common among parents, and the subject of a growing abundance of online content. In one article about protecting kids from microplastics, I read that the snuggling of soft toys in bed is to be avoided, and that such unexpectedly menacing beasts, rather than being left lying around the room or in the child’s bed, should be kept safely in a toy chest. (Later in the same article, the environmental scientist who makes this recommendation also counsels against instilling fear in our children.) As much as I would like to minimise ambient threats to my children’s health, I also don’t especially want to be the kind of parent who insists on their soft toys being stored safely in a chest when not in use — because of all the ambient threats to my children, the one I am most keen to offset is my own neurosis.

And although concern about microplastics is obviously compatible with the larger discourses of environmentalism and anti-consumerism, it’s not exclusively of interest to lefty, liberal types like myself. Joe Rogan, perhaps our culture’s foremost vector of meathead masculinity, has been talking about the topic for several years. In an episode of his podcast last year, Mr. Rogan expressed concern about an alarming effect of phthalates, a chemical used to increase the durability of plastics, in human bloodstreams.

Microplastics have established themselves in the cultural bloodstream, and their prevalence in the zeitgeist can partly be accounted for by our uncertainty as to what it means, from the point of view of pathology, that we are increasingly filled with plastic. This ambiguity allows us to ascribe all manner of malaises, both cultural and personal, to this new information about ourselves. The whole thing has a strangely allegorical resonance. We feel ourselves to be psychically disfigured, corrupted in our souls, by a steady diet of techno-capitalism’s figurative trash — by the abysmal scroll of inane TikToks and brainless takes, by Instagram influencers pointing at text boxes while doing little dances, by the endless proliferation of AI-generated junk content. We feel our faith in the very concept of the future liquefying at broadly the same rate as the polar ice caps. The idea of microscopic bits of trash crossing the blood-brain barrier feels like an apt and timely entry into the annals of the apocalyptic imaginary.

And the aura of scientific indeterminacy that surrounds the subject — maybe this stuff is causing unimaginable damage to our bodies and minds; then again maybe it’s fine — lends it a slightly hysterical cast. We don’t know what these plastics are doing to us, and so there is no end to the maladies we might plausibly ascribe to them. Maybe it’s microplastics that are making you depressed. Maybe it’s because of microplastics that you have had a head cold constantly since Christmas. Maybe it’s microplastics that are stopping you and your partner from conceiving, or making you lazy and lethargic, or forgetful beyond your years. Maybe it’s microplastics that caused the cancer in your stomach, or your brain.

I myself am susceptible to this tendency. A few years back, I was diagnosed with IBD, a chronic autoimmune condition. As is typically the way of such ailments, it came out of nowhere, with no known cause. It’s not life-threatening, but there have been periods when it has made me ill enough to be unable to work for a week or two at a stretch, and when I have been so tired I could barely haul myself off the couch to go to bed at night. Every eight weeks, I present myself at a hospital infusion suite, where I am hooked up to a bag containing a liquid solution of a monoclonal antibody. (These bags are, of course, made from some kind of polyethylene, a fact which you must imagine me relating with an elaborate shrug, indicating great reserves of stoic irony.)

In 2021, a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found significantly higher levels of microplastics in the stool samples of people who were diagnosed with IBD, but who were otherwise healthy, than those without IBD. No direct causation was established, but given that earlier studies conducted on laboratory animals established microplastic ingestion as a cause of intestinal inflammation, it seems not unreasonable to assume that there might be some link.

The more time I spent researching this essay, the more I found myself wondering whether microplastics might be at the root of my condition. My point here is not to make a factual claim either way, because I just don’t know enough to do so. My point, in fact, is precisely that the not knowing generates its own peculiar energy. I think it’s at least plausible that my illness might be caused by microplastics, but that it’s also equally plausible that it might not. And I am aware that this ambiguity is itself strangely seductive, that it is on such epistemological wasteland that great, rickety edifices of conspiracy and conjecture are raised.

Until we know a good deal more than we currently do, at least, talking about microplastics can feel weirdly like holding forth on the harmful effects of cellphone radiation. (If you liked chemtrails, you’ll love microplastics!) The time will come, sooner or later, when we know what microplastics are doing to us, but until then the subject remains an ambiguous, and therefore a richly suggestive one.

But isn’t there something obviously absurd in the claim that we don’t know whether we are being harmed by the plastic in our blood? What standards of harm are these, that we must await the test results before deciding how concerned to be about the thousands of little fragments of trash pulsing through our veins? Surely the fact of their presence is alarming enough in itself; and surely this presence, in any case, registers at least as strongly on a psychic as on a physiological level.

Among the most indelibly distressing images of the damage done to nature by our heedless, relentless consumption of plastic is a series of photographs by the artist Chris Jordan, entitled Midway: Message from the Gyre. Each of these photographs depicts the body of an albatross in some or other state of advanced decomposition. At the centre of each splayed and desiccated carcass is the clustered miscellany of plastic objects the bird had consumed before dying. The horror of these images is in the surreal juxtaposition of organic and inorganic elements, the sheer bewildering volume of plastic contained in their digestive tracts. The bodies of these once beautiful creatures are returning slowly to the earth, but the human trash that sickened them remains inviolable, unalterable by time: toothpaste lids, bottle caps, tiny little children’s dolls and a thousand other unidentifiable traces of our deranged productivity and heedless hunger.

The whole subject of microplastics is possessed of a nightmarish lucidity, because we understand it to be a symptom of a deeper disease. The unthinkable harm we have done to the planet — that is done to the planet on our behalf, as consumers — is being visited, in this surreal and lurid manner, on our own bodies. When we look at the decomposing bodies of those trash-filled birds, we know that we are looking not just at what we are doing to the world, but at what our damaged world is doing to us.

Mark O’Connell is the author, most recently, of ‘Notes From an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back’. His next book, ‘A Thread of Violence: A Story of Truth, Invention and Murder’ will be published in June.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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