First ever evidence that microplastics can reach our organs

US researchers have developed a technique which will allow scientists to detect if microplastics are present in human organs. Their results showed microplastic and nanoplastic particles, along with the dangerous chemicals they can contain, were discoverable in the tissues they sampled.

It is already well documented that microplastics are accumulating in all corners of the Earth, from Arctic snow, to the rain and soils and the deepest parts of the oceans. They have already been found in human breast milk and a 2019 study found that 97% of blood and urine samples collected from some 2,500 children in Germany showed toxic levels of plastic byproducts.

But this is the first research of its kind to identify that plastic particles can accumulate in our organs. Graduate students Charles Rolsky and Varun Kelkar exposed 47 samples of lung, liver, fat, spleen and kidney tissue to tiny particles of plastic, to work out how to detect if microplastics were present.

Using a mass spectrometer, they found every sample to hold traces of common plastic substances such polycarbonate (PC), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and polyethylene (PE), as well as the infamously dangerous bisphenol A (BPA), a material used in food containers.

“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,” said Rolsky. “There’s evidence that plastic is making its way into our bodies, but very few studies have looked for it there,” he added.

“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,” said Kelkar.

Previous studies on the rate of plastic consumption in humans show that particles can pass through the gastrointestinal tract. In fact, it’s possible that humans may contain up to 52,000 microplastic particles.

Evidence of particles have been found in beer, salt, seafood, sugar and honey, as well as some species of fish like shellfish. It’s also been shown that microplastic pollution is raining down on city dwellers, with London having the highest level of four cities analysed in 2019.

When it comes to the effect on human health, not much is known yet about the risks posed. So far, research in wildlife and animals has linked micro and nanoplastic exposure to infertility, inflammation and cancer, but health outcomes in people are unknown.

The researchers are now testing tissues to find microplastics that accumulated during donors’ lifetimes. Donors often provide information on their lifestyles, diets and occupations to tissue banks, so this may help future work to determine the main ways in which people are exposed to microplastics.

The new methodology developed by the team to extract plastics from tissues and analyse them will be shared online so other researchers can report their results in a standardised way. “This shared resource will help build a plastic exposure database so that we can compare exposures in organs and groups of people over time and geographic space,” said Halden.

Microplastics are defined by scientists as plastic fragments less than 5 mm in diameter. Nanoplastics are even smaller, with diameters less than 0.001 mm.

Take Action

Cutting microplastic pollution requires changing how plastic is used and disposed of. Yes, we need systemic changes such as circular economies but it is also down to us to ensure that we are properly disposing of the plastics we use.

You can reject buying products that contain unnecessary packaging, or leave the packaging at the store. Buy unpackaged as much as possible and reject single use plastics.

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