Plastic pollutants have become an undeniable problem for mankind and now have gone far beyond the kind that we can see. Tiny pieces of plastic beads – from products like face masks and body scrubs, synthetic fibers from fabrics, degradable plastic, and raw plastic material, sometimes invisible to the human eye – all comprise the term microplastics, and they are found almost everywhere on the planet.
From baby poop to processed food products, from the Mariana Trench to the top of Mount Everest, these pieces of plastic have made their way into natural environments and are ingested daily by humans and animals alike.
Now, a new study published in the scientific journal, Environmental International, has found for the first time that these particles are present in a new place: human blood.
Gathering blood samples from 22 participants – all healthy adults – researchers discovered microplastics in the blood of 17 of the participants, or about 77%. Not only were the particles as small as 700 nm in diameter, or around 140 smaller than the width of a single human hair, but there were multiple types of plastics found in the blood samples too.
“Our study is the first indication that we have polymer particles in our blood – it’s a breakthrough result,” says Professor Dick Vethaak, an ecotoxicologist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands, to the Guardian. “But we have to extend the research and increase the sample sizes, the number of polymers assessed, etc.”
Half of the samples contained PET, (polyethylene terephthalate) the plastic widely used in bottled water and beverages. A third of the samples contained polystyrene (PS), which is typically used for packaging food and polystyrene foam.
While the study is relatively small, with less than 30 participants, the findings have big implications. Blood makes up 6-7% of body weight in humans – it irrigates the body’s organs and is how oxygen, nutrients and now, potentially plastic particles, are transported within the body to tissues and organs.
“It is certainly reasonable to be concerned,” Vethaak says. “The particles are there and are transported throughout the body.” What troubles Vethaak most is previous research that indicates microplastics are 10 times higher in the feces of babies than that of adults, and that bottle-fed babies are swallowing millions of microplastics a day.
“We also know in general that babies and young children are more vulnerable to chemical and particle exposure,” he said. “That worries me a lot.”
How to cut down your plastic exposure
So what can we do? Vethaak tells The Independent that as a result of his work, he’s cut down his own exposure to plastic, by avoiding single-use plastics as much as possible, especially food and drink packaging.
He also advises utilising good ventilation since microplastic concentrations appear to be higher indoors than outdoors, and covers his food and drinks to reduce exposure to plastic particles.
Other ways to limit microplastics include:
- Not microwaving food in plastic containers – transfer food to ceramic or glass containers before heating
- Use plastic-free cosmetics and micro-bead free beauty and personal care products
- In clothing, opt for natural fibers like wool, silk and hemp, and try using a fiber-catching filter or laundry ball like the Cora Ball which can capture microfibers that break off your clothes
- Swap plastic tea bags for loose leaf or reusable linen bags
- Dust and vacuum regularly to keep microplastics from accumulating
- Support initiatives and policies that limit single-use plastics.
As a pioneering study, more research needs to be done to understand the differences in factors like exposure time, and what happens to these particles once they are in the human body. But the fact remains: we must act fast to start reversing the adverse effects of microplastics.
“The big question is what is happening in our body?” Vethaak says. “Are the particles retained in the body? Are they transported to certain organs, such as getting past the blood-brain barrier?” And are these levels sufficiently high to trigger disease? We urgently need to fund further research so we can find out.”
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