From the remotest mountains to the deepest oceans. From Arctic snow to Antarctic glaciers. Whether it’s tap water or bottled, sardines or scallops, apples or carrots, table salt or tea bags, there’s no getting away from this modern-day pollutant.
Ranging from invisible nanoparticles to half a centimeter in length, microplastics have permeated every aspect of life, so it’s no surprise they’ve made their home within our own bodies.
Now, for the first time, they’ve been detected in human blood. Are they in yours?
“I’ve been studying this for 20 years and we’ve certainly shown microplastics are present everywhere we have looked,” says world-leading marine scientist, Professor Richard Thompson of Plymouth University, England.
Food and water are only some of the sources. Microplastics find their way into the air we breathe from clothing, carpets, curtains, bedding, personal care products, cosmetics, and cleaning products. In fact, potentially the most dangerous place to ingest plastic is in our own home.
One study found that we breathe in up to 7,000 particles of microplastics a day. Another found living rooms alone can expose us to more than 24,000 microplastic particles a day.
Senior author of the latter study, Professor Jeanette Rotchell, from the University of Hull, England, explained, saying, “Now so many people are working from home, these levels of microplastics in the living environment may be even more concerning.”
Microplastics have been found in human livers, kidneys, and spleens, but a recent study found them in an unexpected location.
Lodged Deep in the Lungs
Scientists at the University of Hull performed another study in which they collected healthy samples of tissue from patients undergoing surgery for lung cancer.
After filtering the lung tissue, they discovered 39 different types of microplastic within eleven of the thirteen samples analyzed. Eleven were found in the upper part of the lungs, seven in the middle and 21 in the lower part.
Lead author Laura Sadofsky, said, “…this is the first robust study to show microplastics in lungs from live people.”
The discovery didn’t surprise her in the least. What she didn’t expect, she explains, is “to find the highest number of particles in the lower regions of the lungs, or particles of the sizes we found.
“This is surprising as the airways are smaller in the lower parts of the lungs, and we would have expected particles of these sizes to be filtered out or trapped before getting this deep into the lungs…no one thought they could possibly get there, but they clearly have.”
In the latest study, published in the May edition of the journal Environment International, microplastics were found for the first time in human blood.
A Breakthrough Finding
Scientists from Vrije University, Amsterdam, drew blood from 22 healthy adults, finding microplastics in 17 of the samples.
Since the measurement method they used was only just sensitive enough to find any plastic at all, it’s possible all participants carried microplastic particles in their blood, but they were too small to measure in five of them. Lead author Marja Lamoree explained, saying, “the chance of that seems very high to me.”
Another member of the research team, Professor Dick Vethaak, told The Guardian newspaper that “this is a pioneering study. Our study is the first indication that we have polymer particles in our blood – it’s a breakthrough result.”
Emeritus professor Martin van den Berg of Utrecht University agreed saying that the study is “a breakthrough.”
Professor Bart Koelmans, who studies microplastics at Wageningen University and calculates their risk estimates for the World Health Organization, said measuring microplastics in water is one thing, but to do so in the blood is extremely complex. “They have checked and double-checked everything; this is real proof there is plastic in our blood.”
What Does this Mean to Human Health?
Research into microplastics is still at an early stage so the health impact of having them lodged in our organs and floating around our bloodstream remains unknown.
Prof. Vethaak wonders, “Are the particles retained in the body? Are they transported to certain organs, such as getting past the blood-brain barrier? Are these levels sufficiently high to trigger disease? It is certainly reasonable to be concerned.
“We also know in general that babies and young children are more vulnerable to chemical and particle exposure. That worries me a lot.”