Scientists have recently discovered an alarming concentration of plastic particles in blood samples of 22 donors. In a new study published in the journal of Environmental International, authors have found plastic particles in 80 percent of the 22 participants that were tested. There is overwhelming evidence that suggests humans have inevitably been exposed to microplastics over recent years, whether that be through ingestion of food and drink or the air we breathe. In light of this discovery, little research has been conducted into the effects of microplastics on humans and their health. Scientists and MPs are requesting that the UK government put aside £15m towards research on the matter of human health and the consequences of plastic usage. Currently the EU is already funding research into the impact of microplastics on the immune system and foetuses. As of yet, the potential effects of microplastics on human health are unknown however, I will do my best to relay all evidence found so far and the potential complex implications of this alarming discovery.
There is strong evidence that suggests additives such as dyes and plasticisers are toxic to humans. Phthalates are most often used as plasticizers to increase flexibility of plastic, as an additive they are more likely to be released into the environment as they are not chemically bound. Exposure to such toxic additives has been shown to have effects in utero and could cause a shorter pregnancy. There have also been findings that indicate bioaccumulation could cause impaired neurological development and endocrine issues (Bellés et al. 2010; Reverte et al. 2014).
Inhalation is of great concern, as production of plastic textile fibres has increased more than 6% per year and makes up for about 16% of the worlds plastic production (Gasperi et al. 2018). It is predicted that just one item of clothing releases 1900 fibres per wash into waste water (Browne et al. 2011). It is not clear how these microplastics effect human health, what is known is that the majority of the fibres can be cleared from the respiratory system, however, some will go on to cause inflammatory responses and respiratory lesions according to (Prata 2018). There’s strong evidence of an increased cancer risk but an even higher risk of respiratory irritation. Ingestion is another way microplastics get into our system from seafood and bottled water intake.
The presence of microplastics in seafood is an area that needs to be investigated much further and evidence suggests that interactions between microplastics, gut microbiota and microorganisms could potentially lead to disastrous health implications. Microplastics have the potential, once in our system, to alter our gut microbiota. Another area of concern regarding biological effects on humans is that microplastics provide beneficial surfaces for antibiotic resistant bacteria, which could lead to the enhancement of superbugs.More recently, a study has been published that suggests microplastics can attach to the outer membranes of red blood cells and may block their ability to supply oxygen. Thai discovery shows that particles can travel through the body and may attach themselves to vital organs, impacting our health, which needs to be investigated further. Other researchers are worried that microplastics have the potential to damage human cells as air pollution particles already contribute to early deaths.
What Happens Next?
A great deal is still unknown about the possible side-effects and impact on human health, questions still remain as to whether it can be eliminated and where exactly it is going in the body. What is clear is that further research must be called for in order to answer these crucial questions.
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