Microplastics

There are microplastics in the lungs, heart, penis and breast milk. Can we keep microplastics out of our body?

In the lungs and blood of humans, microplastics have been found. They were then found in the heart of a human. Microplastics have also been found in the kidney tissue. The penis, placenta, and even breastmilk have all been found to contain microplastics.

The first studies suggested that microplastics – defined as fibres or pieces smaller than 5mm, as well as even smaller nanoplastics – were not only accumulating locally, but also in human organs.

More and more often, micro- and nanoplastics can be found in nearly every part of our body. How do they enter our bodies?

According to Dr Junli Xu, assistant professor at UCD’s School of Biosystems and Food Engineering who researches health implications of nanoplastics and microplastics, there are three main transmission pathways.

Microplastics can be found in many foods, including salt, beer and fresh fruits and vegetables. They are also present in drinking water. Some packaging materials, such as baby bottles and teabags, can also be a source of microplastics. “By using these materials, microplastics will be released and can enter directly into the body”, she explains.

Another way is to inhale directly. Indoor and outdoor air is contaminated with microplastics, and car tyres are a major source. Artificial grass releases microplastics into the air as well.

Dr Xu stated that dermal contact – through creams and other cosmetic products – is also a way of transmission. However, this is regarded as “a lesser likelihood” than inhalation or ingestion.

Her UCD lab recently examined microplastics used in medical settings. “A large amount of plastic used in medical devices like IVs has the potential to spread microplastics throughout the body. She says that the most important thing is that they will enter your bloodstream.

“So, basically, if we ingest small particles, there’s a strong barrier. But if a plastic microparticle enters the bloodstream, it can circulate freely throughout the body and accumulate in various organs.”

Automatic reaction to the news that humans now contain plastic has been largely worry.

Professor John Boland of Trinity College Dublin’s School of Chemistry and Director of the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures & Nanodevices says that the body is designed to ingest a lot of particles, and then expel them.

Nanoplastics, which are very small particles, travel around the body.

The problem arises when these particles become smaller. He says that there are many barriers within your body membranes, and that small particles can easily pass through them.

Prof Boland added that micro- and nanoplastics contain chemical additives to increase the resistance of the product to degradation. They are also particularly harmful for people.

These additives are toxic. BPA was an additive chemical that was widely used in many materials. There are still many, many others. Plastics contain around 500 chemical additives. “There’s not much control,” he says.

In the past year, scientists have discovered that the presence of plastics can affect the body’s functioning.

Researchers from Italy published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that found patients with heart disease who had microplastics in their blood vessels, which carry blood from the heart up to the head and brain, were twice as susceptible to a stroke or heart attack.

The patients who did not have microplastics in the carotid arteries (the major blood vessels that supply blood to the brain) were also more at risk of dying over the following three years. Prof Boland said that the study’s findings were one of the most “scary” things he had read in the area.

When they removed plaques from arteries in nearly 60% of patients, they found that the plaques they removed were full of micro- and nanoplastics. He says that the plastic got into the blood.

The Italian study showed that these patients had severe cardiovascular risks. These patients were not functioning as well as they should have for their age.

Professor Boland explains that research on the health effects of micro- and nanoplastics is still in its very early stages. Researchers do not want to “jump ahead”, he says.

Infants are exposed to 10 times more than adults. They are supposedly more vulnerable. Plastic products surround babies when they are born.

Dr Xu stated that the research regarding health effects due to microplastics was “inconclusive”.

It’s because microplastics, unlike other chemicals, are very complex. We know that for some hazards, like BPA the dose is the sole determinant of toxicity. The higher the dose the greater the toxicity,” says she.

It’s totally different when it comes microplastics. There are many different types, including polystyrene and polypropylene. We do not know which is more toxic. They have different chemical properties. Their size, shape and surface area are all different. All these factors contribute to toxicity. It is difficult to do an effective risk assessment.

Despite the fact that there are still questions about the exact health effects of the increasing prevalence of microplastics, Dr Xu believes there is no doubt as to their inevitability.

Scientists are in agreement that the negative health effects of microplastics won’t be apparent for a while. She adds that these microplastics were not meant to be found in humans.

The situation will worsen before it gets better. “The amount of microplastics expected to increase in the body.”

This is especially true for the younger generations. They are not only exposed to a greater level of plastic pollution but are also more susceptible to pollution.

“Exposure of infants is 10x higher than adults.” They are also supposedly more vulnerable. Plastic products surround babies when they are born. “Everything is made of plastic, including the toys, chewing toys and baby bottles.”

What can we do to protect ourselves from the potentially devastating health effects of plastic, which is everywhere? Researchers say that there are several small steps people can take to reduce plastic pollution.

According to Dr Xu recycling is an option. However, she believes that plastic pollution is “sort of inevitable”.

She adds: “Of course, people can change their lifestyles to use less plastic or recycle in order to reduce microplastics. But it’s always good to recycle because it will reduce microplastics from entering the environment.”

Prof Boland believes that the way the public prepares and stores food is an important factor in reducing the plastic contamination of humans.

“Many people store food in plastic containers, so we remove them from the fridge and heat them up using the microwave. But that’s a disaster.” He says that the microwave itself, along with steam and water creates a lot of micro- and nanoplastics.

You may think that using the same container repeatedly is great, but if you take a look inside, you will see it getting rougher and this is because you are losing materials all the time.

Professor Boland’s team at Trinity University recently published a study on the release of plastic particles from baby bottles.

“One of the problems is that sterilisation, which is what you do to clean the bottle, is responsible for the most microplastics being released, because you use scalding water. “This creates particles of all sizes,” says he.

He said that switching to glass containers is one way to reduce this. Another is to remove the food from plastic containers before heating.

The industry can also take steps. His research team found that kettles were emitting large amounts of microplastics. However, the copper coating actually prevented the release of those particles.

The brown (on the inside a kettle) is caused by the water and the copper pipes. “Every time you boil your water, you produce copper oxide that covers the inside and protects against the release of plastics.” he says.

We’ve demonstrated that coating nanoplastics can prevent their release. “But we need the industry to do it.”