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Could microplastics in human blood pose a health risk?

Plastics are everywhere. Although, in theory, much of it can be recycled, a lot of it ends up in landfills, or worse, in watercourses and marine ecosystems.

Many people are too familiar with distressing images of turtles and dolphins trapped in plastic bags or fishing nets. But there is a less visible effect — microplastics, tiny plastic particles formed when plastics break down and during commercial product manufacturing.

Several studies have found evidence of plastics in the human body. One revelation came after scientists detected plastic additives such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalatesTrusted Source in human urine. Researchers have also found microplastics in human fecesTrusted Source. However, until now, no published study has directly examinedTrusted Source the effect of these tiny plastic specks on human health.

In a new study published in the journal Environment International, researchers in the Netherlands developed a method of analyzing human blood to detect microplastics. They then used this method to analyze blood from 22 healthy volunteers.

Tiny plastic particles

Microplastics are specks of plastic. By definition, they are less than 5mm in any dimension, but many are invisible to the naked eye. There are two types of microplastics: primary microplastics and secondary microplastics. The former are the particles used in some cosmetics, and the latter comes from the breakdown products of larger plastic items.

Much concern about microplastics has previously focused on their effect on the marine environment, as they are found in oceans worldwide. Many marine organisms, such as fish and shellfish, have been found to contain microplastics Trusted Source.

An innovative detection method

For this study, the researchers looked for particles that could be absorbed across membranes in the human body. They filtered the blood to collect any plastic particles between 700 nanometers(nm) and 500,000nm. To avoid any plastic contamination, the researchers used glass fiber filters.

The researchers looked for five common plastics:

  • poly(methyl methylacrylate) (PMMA), used in dentistry and other medical applications
  • polypropylene (PP), commonly used for packaging and textiles
  • polymerized styrene (PS), used for lightweight packaging
  • polyethylene (PE), the most widely used plastic, used for carrier bags, among many other things
  • polyethylene terephthalate (PET), widely used in textiles and food and drink containers

The samples from the filters were processed by double-shot pyrolysis to produce chromatograms from which scientists could identify the contents.

“Human biomonitoring methods for measuring plastics additives have been available for several years […] But measuring microplastics, especially at the small size that would likely circulate in blood vessels (<7 microns), is very hard,” Prof. Galloway told Medical News Today.

“This paper is good news because it describes a method that is sensitive enough to do this in blood samples and combines size fractionation and mass measurements,” she added.

Plastic in most blood

More than three-quarters of the blood samples contained a quantifiable mass of plastic particles.

The researchers found PET — which most drinks bottles are made from — in the blood of more than half of those tested. They did not detect PP in any of the samples.

Researchers found at least 3 different types of plastic in some blood samples.

Prof. Galloway was unsurprised by the findings:

“The fact that just about everyone has microplastic in their blood isn’t so surprising when you consider that just about everyone has plastics additives in their bodies.”

Possible health effects

The researchers suggest several ways the plastics may have entered the bloodstream — via air, food, water, personal care products such as toothpaste and lip gloss, dental polymers, and tattoo ink residues. What happens to the microplastics once they enter the bloodstream is unclear.

In vitro studies have shown the effects of microplastics on cells. A recent study in Germany found that microplastic particles can destabilize lipid membranes — the barriers that surround all cells — which may affect their functioning. Another study found that microplastics had many effects on cells, including cell death.

The current study was based on a sample size of only 22 people, so the authors stress the need for further research:

“It remains to be determined whether plastic particles are present in the plasma or are carried by specific cell types.”

However, they believe that “[i]t is scientifically plausible that plastic particles may be transported to organs via the bloodstream.”

What effect they might have on organs is, as yet, unknown.

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