What are microplastics? Fragments found in human lungs, blood for the first time

Concerns over microplastics have risen to new heights in recent weeks after researchers first confirmed they had been found in human blood and lungs.

The full health implications of microplastics in humans remain unknown. But we know they’re in our blood, they’re in our lungs, they’ve even been found in the placentas of unborn children — and they’re built to last.

Microplastics are small particles of plastic that end up in the environment as a result of human plastic waste. These particles can vary widely in size and shape, but they are generally considered microplastics if they are less than five millimeters long, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Microplastics can come from larger pieces of plastic waste that break down into smaller pieces. They can also be released into the environment in the form of microbeads — bits of plastic deliberately designed to be small and often used as exfoliants in health and beauty products.

A stock photo shows plastic particles seen on a human fingertip. Microplastics have been found in human blood and lungs and their health effects are still unknown.
pcess609/Getty

The study of microplastics is relatively new, with scientists developing standardized field methods to study them. But we already know that they have been found basically everywhere on Earth, from the top of Mount Everest to the bottom of the ocean.

This may just be the tip of the iceberg. Human plastic pollution remains a huge problem after a surge in plastic production in recent decades.

In the early 2000s, the amount of plastic waste produced in a single decade increased more than in the previous 40 years. In all that time, most of the waste has ended up in landfills, uncontrolled waste streams or simply dumped into the environment and the sea. Today, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, people still produce 300 million tons of plastic waste every year.

In a study published March 24 this year in the journal: Environment Internationalscientists reported that they had found multiple types of plastic for the first time in blood samples provided by 17 of 22 anonymous healthy adult donors.

Alice Horton, an anthropogenic contaminant scientist at the National Oceanography Center in the UK who was not involved in the study, told the Science Media Centre: “Despite the low sample numbers and low concentrations detected, the analytical methods used are very robust and this data is therefore unambiguous evidence for the presence of microplastics and/or nanoplastics in blood samples.

“This is a worrying finding, as particles of this size have been shown in the laboratory to cause inflammation and cell damage under experimental conditions.”

Professor Dick Vethaak, an ecotoxicologist at VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands who was involved in the study, said: the guard newspaper, he was particularly concerned about the impact of plastic particles on babies and young children.

“We also generally know that infants and young children are more vulnerable to exposure to chemicals and particles,” he said. “That worries me greatly.”

In another study published March 29 in the journal Science of the total environmentscientists also announced the detection of microplastics in human lung tissue, identifying 39 microplastics in 11 of 13 lung samples examined.

The question now is what this means for our health. Vethaak told the guard which we need to discover “urgently”, adding: “Are the particles retained in the body? Are they transported to certain organs, such as crossing the blood-brain barrier?”

We already know a bit. At least one study has suggested that microplastics can attach to human blood cells and possibly alter their ability to carry oxygen. More troubling implications may emerge over time.

The UN aims to draft a legally binding agreement to be signed by countries by the end of 2024 that it hopes will address the full life cycle of plastics and reduce plastic pollution, including microplastics.

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