Microplastics now discoverable in human organs due to innovative technique

Microplastics and nanoplastics are known to wreak havoc on marine ecosystems

Louise Boyle
New York
Monday 24 August 2020 15:21
Half a million hermit crabs killed by plastic pollution on remote islands study finds

Microplastics have infiltrated every part of our world - the oceans, land, air and food supply - and now a new technique makes the particles discoverable in human organs.

Some 300million tons of plastic waste is produced each year, according to Plastic Oceans, and while it is not biodegradable, products fragment into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics - less than 0.2inches (5mm) -and nanoplastics, less than 0.001mm.

Microplastics wreak havoc on marine ecosystems and there is growing evidence of their impact on human health. A 2018 study discovered that microplastics were found to have passed through the human gut.

The pervasiveness of microplastics means that researchers expect to find particles in human organs but actually discovering them has been challenging.

Research team Charles Rolsky and Varun Kelka, both graduate students at Arizona State University (ASU), have developed an innovative technique to allow microplastics to be discoverable in human organs.

They tested it out by adding particles to 47 samples of lung, liver, spleen and kidneys. Microplastics could be detected in every sample, according to the study.

The samples were taken from a large collection of brain and body tissues that have been gathered to study neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer's.

Bisphenol A (BPA), which is still used to manufacture food containers despite links to health issues such as cardiovascular problems, was found in all 47 samples.

The students presented their findings on Monday at the American Chemical Society's (ACS) virtual expo. Mr Rolsky said: “You can find plastics contaminating the environment at virtually every location on the globe, and in a few short decades, we’ve gone from seeing plastic as a wonderful benefit to considering it a threat.

“There’s evidence that plastic is making its way into our bodies, but very few studies have looked for it there. And at this point, we don’t know whether this plastic is just a nuisance or whether it represents a human health hazard.”

Along with BPA, the research team also found polycarbonate (PC), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyethylene (PE) in the human tissue.

“We never want to be alarmist, but it is concerning that these non-biodegradable materials that are present everywhere can enter and accumulate in human tissues, and we don’t know the possible health effects,” Mr Kelkar said.

“Once we get a better idea of what’s in the tissues, we can conduct epidemiological studies to assess human health outcomes. That way, we can start to understand the potential health risks, if any.”

The impact of plastic pollution on people is the subject of a growing number of studies. Last year, Dr Ivone Mirpuri, a hormone specialist, found that the chemicals used to make plastic may be triggering the rise in a range of diseases and conditions in people from reduced fertility to obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart attacks and neurological conditions, Environmental Journal reported.

There also have been studies on their impacts on other species, including evidence that microplastics can damage oyster fertility and negatively impact respiratory and reproductive systems in fish.

This article was updated after more information was provided to The Independent that particles were added to the human tissue samples

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