New research found microplastics deep within the lungs of living humans for the first time in history. In previous years, researchers discovered micro-plastics in human cadaver autopsy samples. In 2018, the Environment Agency Austria estimated that over 50% of the world’s population may harbor microplastics in their stools. A 2022 study, however, discovered the disturbing fact that microplastics exist in human blood.
A few years ago, microplastics were discovered in fish guts and shellfish, making the consumption of seafood somewhat dangerous. Shellfish, in particular, was a big worry because people eat the entire animal, unlike fish. In 2017, Belgian scientists announced that seafood consumers could consume up to 11,000 plastic particles per year by eating mussels. Not only do microplastics exist in our waterways, environment, and seafood, but they also exist in our bodies. Some evidence found microplastics in rain and the air we breathe!
What Are Microplastics?
Plastic is a material that is composed of synthetic compounds and semi-synthetic organic compounds. Plastic materials are easy and inexpensive to manufacture, which is why there are so many plastic goods in existence. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic smaller than five millimeters in size. They disintegrate from larger plastic materials, but you can also find them in food containers, clothing, and exfoliants.
Plastic materials are not biodegradable; rather, they break up into much smaller pieces after physical abrasion or ultraviolet light exposure. When plastic bottles end up in the ocean, for example, the continuous sunlight exposure causes them to break down. Once microplastics move with the currents of the ocean, they can travel throughout all areas of the marine ecosystem.
Five Main Types Of Microplastics
Even though this is a fun word to say, these small plastic pellets easily end up in waterways. Manufacturers use them to make plastic goods, but their tiny size causes them to spill out of transportation vehicles. Similar to microbeads, nurdles end up in the ocean or waterways, where wildlife mistake them as food.
Microbeads are non-biodegradable particles of plastic, which measure less than one millimeter in diameter. They exist in exfoliating products, facial cleansers, toothpaste, and more. It’s very easy for wildlife to mistake microbeads for food, and this poses a danger because plastics are not digestible. In fact, microbeads clog the intestines of animals, leading to potential starvation and death.
Fibers come from cigarette butts, fleece clothing, diapers, and other materials. Microfibers easily enter waterways via washing machines. Unlike cotton or wool, microfibers are not biodegradable, which is why they harm the environment.
Coffee cups, food containers, and other similar styrofoam items are some of the most harmful items to the environment. Foam chemicals leach into beverages and foods, and reheating food in styrofoam containers increases the risk of toxic exposure. Similar to fragments (detailed next), styrofoam breaks down into lots of tiny pieces.
These are essentially smaller pieces of plastic that break off from larger plastic materials. The sun’s UV rays break down fragments into even smaller pieces of plastic. Fragments are commonly from plastic cutlery, single-use water bottles, or plastic lids.
Microplastics In Humans
Research on microplastics is far from new. In fact, Richard Thompson, a marine scientist from the University of Plymouth, coined the term “microplastics” in 2004. The term followed Thompson’s discovery of plastics the size of grains of rice above the tideline on an English beach. Since then, researchers have discovered microplastics around the world, from the deepest point of the ocean to the summit of Mount Everest. They are even in fresh fruits, vegetables, drinking water, and the air we breathe. In fact, they exist in incomprehensible numbers, with the latest 2021 tally totaling at 24.4 trillion microplastics in the world’s upper oceans. To put that in perspective, that’s the equivalent of 30 billion half-liter water bottles.
Scientists in the U.K. and the Netherlands found tiny plastic particles in living humans. The microplastics were deep inside the lungs of surgical patients and in the blood of anonymous donors. Scientists agree that they have never seen plastics in those areas of the body before. The published studies never answered the question of potential harm; rather, the focus seemed to shift from plastics to airborne particles that we breathe. Some of these particles are so small that they can penetrate deep within the body and end up inside cells.
More research is necessary on how the types of microplastics affect plasma or cell types. If microplastics end up in cells, can the cells transport them across the mucosa and into the bloodstream? And once plastic particles are in the bloodstream, they can exist in immune cells, posing a serious risk for overall immune function and autoimmune disorders. By 2050, the World Economic Forum says there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans. Let’s do our best to correct that statistic!