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Grocery store-bought tea bags release billions of microplastic particles into every cup
Those silky tea bags might be releasing plastics into your digestive system.
- A new study at McGill University discovered that many tea bags leach billions of plastic particles into every cup.
- While the health dangers are unknown, past research uncovered serious problems in other mammals when consuming such particles.
- Scientists estimate that between five and 13 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into oceans every single year.
When I initially shared a new study from McGill University that found plastic tea bags release billions of microplastics and nanoplastics on social media, most commenters asked, "Who drinks from plastic tea bags?" Many of us do, it turns out.
Discovering which companies use plastic tea bags takes some work, but the story isn't exactly new. In 2013, The Atlantic reported on an increasing amount of tea manufacturers placing their leaves in "silky" or "mesh" tea bags. What appeared to be an evolution of the standard Lipton's approach — you could see and smell the leaves — turns out to be potentially damaging to our health.
That's what Nathalie Tufenkji, a professor of chemical engineering at McGill, thought one day when ordering a cup of tea at a Montreal café. Along with fellow researchers, she tested out four different tea bags constructed of plastic in her laboratory. The team discovered that, when brewed to 95 degrees Celsius, these bags release 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastic particles into each cup.
Their findings were published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology on Sept. 25.
Some tea bags may shed billions of microplastics per cup
We know the damage that climate change is having on oceans — yet another report, this one issued by the United Nations, highlights how dangerously close we are to destroying ecosystems that most biological life on the planet depends on.
Plastic is also a pervasive problem in our world: since the '50s, humans have produced over 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, with roughly half of it being made over the last 15 years. Scientists estimate that between five and 13 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into oceans every single year. Warming temperatures and plastic particles create a perfect storm in the destruction of entire ocean habitats.
That's not the only place plastics show up, the McGill team writes. Microplastics have been discovered in table salt, fish, and water — from taps, but even more so from plastic water bottles. They're also being used in facial scrubs and toothpaste, along with, of course, drinking straws. In cafés around Los Angeles, I constantly witness cold brew coffee being served in plastic cups with plastic lids, sipped through with plastic straws that are delivered wrapped in plastic. I'm sure this practice is not limited to this city.
As the comedian, George Carlin, famously noted, maybe the purpose of humans was to put plastic on the planet. Given the data, his hypothesis may turn out to be correct.
Back to the McGill study, researchers steeped empty plastic teabags in reverse osmosis water for five minutes at 95 degrees Celsius. They then scanned the water using electron microscopy, confirming particle composition using two other forms of spectroscopy. The four brands used were all sourced from grocery stores and coffee shops in Montreal.
Photo by Zikri Maulana/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
As of now, the health impact of consuming plastic particles is unknown in humans. Previous studies have confirmed environmental and health effects in populations of algae, zooplankton, fish, and mice. Numerous studies involving the mammalian gut (in rodents, rabbits, and dogs) show that plastic particles are translocated in the body once inside of the digestive tract. The team writes,
"Potential biological responses include genotoxicity, apoptosis, and necrosis, which could lead to tissue damage, fibrosis and carcinogenesis."
As Taylor Orci wrote in The Atlantic in 2013, tea companies emphasize the quality of tea over the fact that you're drinking plastic. Best to disguise the fact that these particles are being leached into consumer's cups. That some companies advertise plastic-free teabags is telling of an industry-wide issue.
We'll need more research to uncover the actual health effects of drinking these particles — between 2013 and 2019, no one has measured the harm of these substances, making you wonder what the FDA and CDC are doing. Regardless, it's hard to square the benefits of green tea when you're enjoying it with a side of plastic.
Image source: Nathalie Tufenkji et al. McGill University.
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
SEAL training is the ultimate test of both mental and physical strength.
- The fact that U.S. Navy SEALs endure very rigorous training before entering the field is common knowledge, but just what happens at those facilities is less often discussed. In this video, former SEALs Brent Gleeson, David Goggins, and Eric Greitens (as well as authors Jesse Itzler and Jamie Wheal) talk about how the 18-month program is designed to build elite, disciplined operatives with immense mental toughness and resilience.
- Wheal dives into the cutting-edge technology and science that the navy uses to prepare these individuals. Itzler shares his experience meeting and briefly living with Goggins (who was also an Army Ranger) and the things he learned about pushing past perceived limits.
- Goggins dives into why you should leave your comfort zone, introduces the 40 percent rule, and explains why the biggest battle we all face is the one in our own minds. "Usually whatever's in front of you isn't as big as you make it out to be," says the SEAL turned motivational speaker. "We start to make these very small things enormous because we allow our minds to take control and go away from us. We have to regain control of our mind."
Is focusing solely on body mass index the best way for doctor to frame obesity?
- New guidelines published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal argue that obesity should be defined as a condition that involves high body mass index along with a corresponding physical or mental health condition.
- The guidelines note that classifying obesity by body mass index alone may lead to fat shaming or non-optimal treatments.
- The guidelines offer five steps for reframing the way doctors treat obesity.