Researchers find microplastics in human tissues

Researchers find microplastics in human tissues

Plastics are in the news again, microplastics to be exact. While plastics have previously been found to pass through the human gastrointestinal tract, now two graduate students at Arizona State University (ASU) have unveiled that microplastics are found in human organs and tissues, too. The researchers presented their results recently at the American Chemical Society (ACS) Fall 2020 Virtual Meeting & Expo.

Plastic pollution of land, water and air is a global problem. Even when plastic bags or water bottles break down to the point at which they are no longer an eyesore, tiny fragments can still contaminate the environment. Animals and humans can ingest the particles, with uncertain health consequences. Now, scientists report that they are among the first to examine microplastics (less than 5 mm) and nanoplastics (diameters less than 0.001 mm) in human organs and tissues.

Researchers Charles Rolsky and Varun Kelkar collaborated with Diego Mastroeni, Ph.D., to obtain samples from a large collection of brain and body tissues that were collected for the study of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's.

The 47 samples were taken from lungs, liver, spleen and kidneys: four organs likely to be exposed to, filter or collect microplastics. The team developed a procedure to extract plastics from the samples and analysed them by a mass spectrometer.

"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," said co-author and PhD student Charles Rolsky.

"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 researchers also created a computer programme that converted information on plastic particle count into units of mass and surface area. They plan to share the tool online so that other researchers can report their results in a standardised manner.

Bisphenol A (BPA), which is still used to manufacture food containers despite links to health issues, was found in all the 47 samples.

Along with BPA, the research team also found polycarbonate (PC), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyethylene (PE) in the human tissue.

To the researchers' knowledge, their study is the first to examine micro and nanoplastic occurrence in human organs from individuals with a known history of environmental exposure.

Should people be concerned about the high detection frequency of plastic components in human tissues? "We never want to be alarmist, but it is concerning that these non-biodegradable materials that are present everywhere can enter and accumulate in human tissues, and we don't know the possible health effects," Kelkar says.

The researchers now plan to investigate any potential health risks that may arise due to plastic contamination.

"Once we get a better idea of what's in the tissues, we can conduct epidemiological studies to assess human health outcomes. That way, we can start to understand the potential health risks, if any," added Kelkar.

The researchers acknowledge funding from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, Plastics Ocean International and the Alzheimer's Association.


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