Microplastic particles have steadily made its way into our bodies with its rampant use in everyday products and through the pollution that deposits it in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink.
In what looked like a major breakthrough, recent research has detected microplastic pollution in human blood for the first time.
Prof. Dick Vethaak, an ecotoxicologist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, told the Guardian that their study, “Discovery and Quantification of Plastic Particle Pollution in Human Blood,” is the first indication that humans have polymer plastics in their bloodstreams.
Vethaak explained, “Our study showed a landmark outcome, and is the first indication that human blood contains polymer particles.” He continued, “However, we need to expand the study by increasing the number of polymers assessed, the sample sizes, etc. Several other groups are already conducting additional research.”
The study was funded by the Dutch National Organization for Health Research and Development and Common Seas, a social enterprise dedicated to reducing plastic pollution. It was reported in the Journal of Environment International.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are plastic pieces of any type less than 0.00002 inches (5mm) in diameter. These tiny plastic particles result from both commercial product development and the breakdown of larger plastics. As a pollutant, microplastics can harm the environment animal and human health.
Researchers at Vrije Universiteit (Free University) Amsterdam, Netherlands, analyzed 22 blood samples from healthy donors. Existing techniques were extended to detect and analyze particles as small as 0.0007mm in the study. The scientists used steel syringe needles and glass tubes to avoid any contamination and used blank samples to test for background levels of microplastics. The team tested for five different types of plastics: polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyethylene (PE), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polystyrene (PS), polypropylene (PP).
The study results
The scientists found that 17 donors, or almost 80% of the people tested, contain microplastics in their bloodstream. Nearly 50% of the microplastics found in the blood samples had polyethylene terephthalate (PET) commonly used in drinks bottles, making it the most prevalent plastic type in the samples. Polystyrene used in packaging and storage accounts for 36% of the tiny particles the team found in the human blood samples.
A quarter of the blood samples contained 23% polyethylene, from which plastic carrier bags are made. 5% of the blood samples contain polymethyl methacrylate and no traces of polypropylene in any blood samples. However, some of the blood samples had two or three types of plastic.
The discovery is worrisome as these tiny plastic particles can travel around the body and get lodged in organs.
While the full extent of their effect is presently unknown, research has revealed that microplastics harm human cells in the laboratory. It’s already known that air pollution particles enter the body and cause millions of early deaths yearly.
“It’s normal to be concerned. The particles are there and moving around the body,” said Vethaak to the Guardian. He admitted that the type and amount of plastic in the blood samples differed significantly. “This is, nonetheless, a groundbreaking study,” he added. “And more research is needed.”
He speculated that the discrepancies could be due to short-term exposures before blood sampling, such as wearing a plastic face mask or drinking from a plastic-lined coffee cup.
In 2021, a study found that babies had more microplastics in their feces than adults – almost ten times higher. Babies fed with plastic bottles were also found to be swallowing millions of microplastic particles daily.
“We also realize that babies and little children are generally more susceptible to chemical and particle exposure, which gives me a lot of anxiety,” Vethaak added.
According to another study, microplastics can attach to the outer membranes of red blood cells, limiting their ability to transport oxygen. The particles have also been discovered in the placentas of pregnant women and pregnant rats; they quickly move through the lungs into the hearts, brains, and other organs of the fetuses.
Plastic production may double by 2040
“Plastic production is expected to double by 2040,” said Jo Royle, the Common Seas charity founder. “We deserve to know what all of these microplastics particles are doing to our body system. ” Common Seas, including researchers, over 80 NGOs, and MPs are urging the UK government to allocate £15m to study the effects of plastics on human health. The European Union is already funding research on the impacts of microplastic on babies and fetuses, and the immune system.
Health effects of microplastics in the body
A report published in the science journal Nature showed that no published study has directly examined the effects of microplastics on humans. The only data now available is from laboratory studies in which mice or rats were fed huge amounts of microplastics and they showed negative consequences. The study shows that it promotes inflammation in the small intestine and has an effect on fertility and offspring.
Despite the fact that the number of microplastics in the human body is too small to cause harm, plastic pollution is getting more toxic on a daily basis as more plastics are dumped into the environment. Conversely, Yahoo! News reported that more studies had been set out to determine the health impacts of microplastics in the human body as governments allocate millions for research.
Vethaak co-authored a new review paper published on Tuesday, March 21, 2022. The paper assessed cancer risk and concluded thus: “More extensive research into how micro-and-nano plastics affect the processes and structures of the human body, and whether and how they can transform cells and cause carcinogenesis, is urgently needed, considering the exponential rise in plastic production. The problem becomes more pressing daily.”
“The big question is, what’s going on within our bodies?” Vethaak remarked. “Are the microplastic particles transported to specific organs, such as the brain or do they pass through the blood-brain barrier?” “Are they stored in the body and are these levels high enough to cause disease?” We believe the discovery prompts the need for further research so we can find out.
Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to filter the world with plastic because it takes time to degrade. The continuous use of plastic will add more microplastics to the environment.