It’s no secret that plastic waste is wreaking havoc on the environment. That doesn’t just include plastics you can see. Increasingly, scientists have identified concerns about the health effects of microplastics.
Such particles have already been found in remote locations like the Rocky Mountains and the depths of the oceans. Now, researchers have identified bits of microplastics in samples of human tissues. That is a particularly concerning finding as there is no viable solution to Earth’s plastic crisis in sight.
Researchers from Arizona State University wanted to determine whether or not microplastics have taken up residence in the human body. They examined a collection of 47 tissue samples from various human organs, including the lungs, liver, spleen, and kidneys.
Sadly, the researchers found nanoplastic particles in all 47 samples.
Charles Rolsky, director of science for Plastic Oceans International is presenting the research at an upcoming American Chemical Society (ACS) meeting. He says, “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.”
The research team used a mass spectrometer to search the tissue samples for microplastics. They found traces of polycarbonate (PC), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and polyethylene (PE). These materials are all commonly found in plastic. The team also found bisphenol A (BPA), a substance found in many food containers.
This new research builds on previous studies that found microplastics in other parts of the human body. A 2019 study identified toxic levels of microplastics in 97 percent of blood and urine samples from 2,500 children in Germany. Prior to that, a 2018 study found 20 particles of plastic per ten grams of human stool samples.
What’s the Harm?
Currently, there is still some debate about the degree of harm microplastics can cause. Scientists haven’t been able to fully determine how plastic particles impact the human body as a whole—let alone individual organs.
Rolsky says, “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.”
The Arizona State research could help change that.
Dr. Rolf Halden, who oversaw the research, says, “The tissue donors provided detailed information on their lifestyle, diet, and occupational exposures.”
He adds, “Because these donors have such well-defined histories, our study provides the first clues on potential micro- and nanoplastic exposure sources and routes.”
Of course, it is more likely than not that microplastics have negative health effects—especially in the long-term. It will be very interesting to see what sort of data comes from this study and the future research that stems from it.
In the meantime, everyone needs to take responsibility for the plastic problem that is facing our planet. That includes consumers, who should try to reduce their plastic usage whenever possible.
However, the larger burden falls on companies. Across every sector, businesses should look for ways to decrease their waste creation in areas like packaging and shipping.
Otherwise, microplastics might start causing even more problems for humans.