We’ve heard of microplastics in oceans, but what about microplastics in humans? Recent research from Arizona State University has found microplastics in every organ they tested. This is what you should know.
Microplastics in Humans’ Organs
There is no doubt that we have a plastic problem. Microplastics, which are the tiny fragments left when plastic breaks down to a size that we can’t see, make their way into our land, water, and air. Previously, only their environmental impact and danger to the insect and animal populations were looked at. Researchers at Arizona State University, however, decided to look a little further up the food chain. (1)
“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,” researcher Charles Rolsky told Phys.org. “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.” (1)
Microplastics are defined as particles less than 5mm in diameter, and nanoplastics even tinier, at 0.001mm. (1) Wildlife research has linked these particles to several health concerns in animals, including (1):
The researchers knew that the particles are able to pass through the human digestive tract, but wondered if they accumulated in other organs as they do in other animals. (1)
Pick the Right Organs
To study this, they borrowed brain and body tissues that were being used to study neurodegenerative diseases, specifically selecting four organs that were most likely to be exposed to microplastics (1):
These organs’ jobs are to filter, so if microplastics were to accumulate anywhere, those would be the spots. Forty-seven samples were taken from these organs to study. (1)
The researchers then had to develop a procedure to actually extract the tiny plastic particles from the organs and analyze them. They also created a computer program that converts the plastic particle count into units of mass and surface area. Their goal is to share this online for other researchers to use so that further studies can be done in a standardized manner. This will make comparisons of plastic exposure between studies much easier to do. (1)
Dozens of Types of Plastic in Every Sample
The study showed dozens of types of plastics found in every single sample. Types of microplastics in humans include (1):
- Polyethylene terephthalate
- Bisphenol A (BPA)
The researchers made sure to look at the lifestyle habits of the people to whom the tissue used to belong. (1)
“The tissue donors provided detailed information on their lifestyle, diet and occupational exposures,” said Rolf Halden, the PhD who’s lab the researchers conducted the study in . “Because these donors have such well-defined histories, our study provides the first clues on potential micro- and nanoplastic exposure sources and routes.” (1)
Should We Be Concerned?
Currently, there isn’t information on the actual health effects of the plastics in humans, we just know that it is definitely there. More studies need to be done to conclude just what the health impact is. (1)
“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,” researcher Varun Kelkar says. “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.” (1)
Until we know more information, it is still in the best interest of our entire planet to quit plastic as much as we possibly can. Look for reusable alternatives, buy things in plastic-free packaging, and read your labels. Regardless of the health outcomes, the less plastic we use, the better.
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