Study of human tissues finds plastic particles in every sample
One of the great unknowns when it comes to plastic pollution is what kind of threat tiny fragments can pose to the health of living organisms. Scientists have turned to human tissue for answers, and discovered evidence of plastic fragments in every single sample they studied.
The research was led by scientists at Arizona State University, who believe it is the first study to examine micro- and nano-plastic buildup in human organs and tissues. These are plastics that have been broken down to measure less than 5 mm in size, with some as small as 0.001 mm, making them very difficult to track through the environment.
“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,” says member of the research team 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.”
Previous studies have looked at the impacts of plastic pollution on fish, where it was found to cause aneurysms and reproductive changes, and in crustaceans, where it is ground down into even tinier pieces in a matter of days. Other studies have shown how plastics can travel through the gastrointestinal tract, but as far as the researchers know, nobody has yet studied how these materials might build up in human organs after we consume them.
The research involved 47 tissue samples taken from the lungs, liver, spleen and kidneys, which the team figured were the organs most likely to encounter microplastics. Using a combination of computer programming, μ-Raman spectrometry and mass spectrometry, the team was able to identify and extract plastics from the tissue samples, and produce data on the particle count, along with the mass and surface area of the fragments.
Using this technique, the team detected dozens of different plastic types, including polyethylene, polycarbonate and, interestingly, Bisphenol A (BPA), an industrial chemical used in some plastics that is the subject of some controversy, due to the potential health risks. In all, the team found plastic contamination, including BPA, in all samples it studied.
While scientists are a long way from understanding exactly what impacts plastic particles might have on the human body, studies like this one are early and important pieces of the puzzle. The scientists will share their newly developed computer program as an online tool to help other researchers in the field, and hope to continue their work to further unravel the health risks of plastic pollution.
“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,” says team member Varun Kelkar. “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.”
The team is presenting its findings at the American Chemical Society Fall 2020 Virtual Meeting & Expo on Monday.
Source: American Chemical Society