Microplastics in the Human Body: Are They a Threat to Our Health?
AYA | AUGUST 29,2022
A recent study brought to light a disturbing truth: Microplastics are found in our blood. Some media have echoed this discovery, perhaps generating more questions than answers. Because of this, we decided to interview Prof. Dick Vethaak, a key scientist in the study, clarifying several doubts about microplastics.
Microplastics in Our Body
The research Discovery and Quantification of Plastic Particle Pollution in Human Blood, published in May 2022, worked with a sample of 22 anonymous donors discovering that 80% of them had microplastics in their bloodstream. The distribution of the particles in the samples was as follows:
- 50% had PET plastic, common in plastic bottles and synthetic textiles.
- 33% polystyrene, common in food packaging.
- 25% polyethylene, common in plastic bags.
Since such particles travel through the blood flow, it is suspected that they could end up being deposited in organs; however, much research remains to be done on their effects on humans.
As a pioneer study, it's logical not to have all the answers, but it has managed to lay down an essential pillar: Verifying that the phenomenon is real.
Microplastics in the ocean
Microplastics or Nanoplastics?
According to the study, literature has defined "microplastics" as particles of a maximum of 5 mm, with no lower size limit. On the other hand, "nanoplastics" have been considered smaller than 0.1 nm, based on what nanotechnology agrees with.
In this case, the particles were >0.7 nm, but since the above measurements are not universally accepted, scientists preferred to refer to them only as "plastic particles."
Of course, based on such conventions, the classification as "microplastics" is accurate. For this reason, it is not an error to refer to them as such.
Are Microplastics Everywhere?
As much as it may sound alarmist, Prof. Vethaak confirms this is a proven reality: All our spaces at home are contaminated with microplastics to some degree, mainly because they are found in dust. Likewise, he reminds us that any particle, not only plastic, has the potential to end up in our blood. This includes particles generated by diesel cars, cigarettes, smoke from a barbecue, etc.
That said, the presence of microplastics is not a big surprise but rather a scientific verification. However, Prof. Vethaak makes sure to tell us that "we can't just extrapolate the results to the entire general public." Science works based on replication, hence the importance that these studies can be carried out in other populations.
Are Microplastics Harmful Or Not?
As we pointed out before, its effects on humans have not been verified. First, it will be necessary to discover what type of contaminants they carry and, even more importantly, where they go.
The study only verified very recent exposures to plastic; we do not know how much is eliminated and how much will end up inside our cells: this is key to answering the question.
Within this, Prof. Vethaak points out that the nanoplastics would have the most significant harmful potential. Being smaller, they can transport microorganisms, generate higher chemical reactions, and cross membranes. He wonders, will they reach the brain?
Microplastics Are Not the Only Problem
Prof. Vethaak makes a critical distinction: The problem is not whether the particle is "microplastic" but the simple fact that it is a particle. That is, microplastics are just a new nuance within a much larger problem: Particle pollution.
And particle pollution has its effects well studied: 9 million people a year die because of it. 1 in 6 deaths, and mainly due to air contamination, as the World Economic Forum points out.
Therefore, although this discovery deserves dissemination, it is essential to remember that it is one of many problems to which we should pay attention. As he rightly states: "Microplastic pollution is overshadowed by other crises, but all contaminations are interlinked."