Op-ed: Strengthening microplastic regulation to protect our kidneys

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More than 37 million Americans have kidney disease, leading to severe swelling, fatigue, back pain, urination issues, shortness of breath and more.


Of those, roughly 808,000 Americans have subsequently developed kidney failure, after the disease progresses to the inability of filtering out waste products from blood and producing urine. These patients can become very sick and require either kidney transplants or long-term dialysis to stay alive.

Though many wait for years for a transplant or subject themselves to painful dialysis protocols, more than 250,000 people (about half the population of Wyoming) die annually from kidney disease in the Americas.

While many factors — including medical co-morbidities, age and genetics — can contribute to kidney disease, more and more research is coming out showing how tiny plastic particles that we inadvertently consume on a regular basis damage our kidneys and may predispose us to kidney failure. Systemic racism and environmental health disparities are forcing communities of color to bear the brunt of this problem, due to limited access to healthcare in ‘sacrifice zones’ and potential racial bias and stereotyping within the healthcare system itself.

“More and more research is coming out showing how tiny plastic particles that we inadvertently consume on a regular basis damage our kidneys.”

Ingestion of microplastics most commonly happens through drinking water, single-use plastic containers and utensils and food. Once ingested, these tiny plastic particles can travel to our kidneys and instigate oxidative stress and inflammation, which can lead to kidney cell death. Since many of us will ingest these microplastics, this damage accumulates and worsens kidney function over time.

Though this impacts every American, Black people and Latinos are 3.4 times and 1.3 times, respectively, more likely to develop kidney failure. As a volunteer at the University of Florida medical school’s free clinic, I see how most of the patients are from underserved or minority backgrounds and have medical challenges further complicated by the realities of low income and poor living standards. Given that microplastic prevalence and water pollution are highest in many previously redlined communities along with systemic issues related to healthcare access, environmental reform in these communities is of significant importance.

Currently, there are few restrictions placed on microplastics, which means most of the American population is exposed to these dangerous substances. It is near impossible to avoid them; however, there are small steps you can take to reduce your exposure: opting for natural fiber personal care products, encouraging local businesses to reduce plastic packaging and using advanced water filtration systems for drinking water and in your washing machine are just a few.

Given the impact on patient lives and the severe burden on our healthcare system, it is important for us all to write to our legislators to encourage passing bills that limit microplastics in our communities along with having strong environmental reform led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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