When we hear or read about microplastics, it’s generally in the context of water pollution, since plastics, as they take hundreds of years to break down, systematically leach from landfills into our waterways. A less known way that microplastics might adversely impact our health is through the air we breathe.
What microplastics are we breathing in every day—when working at home, driving to the office, outdoors cycling or running, or in different environments? There’s a big gap in knowledge and thanks to researchers around the globe, answers will be found but time is of the essence. The American Lung Association’s chief medical officer Albert Rizzo, poses the analogy between the decades-long effort to convince the government that smoking causes cancer and the current attempts to prove the adverse reactions caused by inhaling and ingesting microplastics. “By the time we got enough evidence to lead to policy change, the cat was out of the bag. I can see plastics being the same thing. Will we find out in 40 years that microplastics in the lungs led to premature aging of the lung or to emphysema? We don’t know that. In the meantime, can we make plastics safer?”1
Plastics continue to fragment in the environment, “shredding” into fibers even finer than a strand of human hair and therefore easily airborne and inhaled. Realistically, we live in a cloud of airborne dust particles and our bodies have grown accustomed to them; however, people with dust allergies and/or those who are asthmatic, show visible signs of suffering. Add microplastics to the mix of airborne dust and the results may well be concerning.
This spring, scientists from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom announced they had found tiny plastic particles in living humans, in two places where they hadn’t been seen before: deep inside the lungs of surgical patients, and in the blood of anonymous donors. Together the studies signaled a shift in the focus of concern on airborne microplastics.2
Dick Vethaak, a professor emeritus of ecotoxicology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and co-author of the blood study, says, “Plastics should not be in your blood. We live in a multi-particle world, so the trick is to figure out how much plastics contribute to that particle burden and what does that mean.”3
In both studies the plastic particles found were primarily smaller than one micrometer, small enough to have been inhaled. Whether such particles can pass from the blood into other organs, especially into the brain, which is protected by a unique, dense network of cells that form a barrier, isn’t clear. “We know particles can be transported throughout the body via the river of blood,” Vethaak says.4
The lung study done at University of Hull in the U.K., showed just how intrusive airborne particles can be. Researchers were stunned to find the highest number of plastics of various shapes and sizes embedded deep in the lower lung lobe. One of the fibers was two millimeters long. “You would not expect to find microplastics in the smallest parts of the lung with the smallest diameter,” says Hull environmental ecologist Jeannette Rothchell.5 And, according to Kari Nadeau, a Stanford University physician and director of allergy and asthma research,” the particles identified in the University of Hull lung study are known to be toxic to humans and have caused lung irritation, dizziness, headaches, asthma and more.”6
Another team—at the University of Plymouth in the U.K.— decided to compare the threat from eating contaminated wild mussels in Scotland to that of breathing air in a typical home. They concluded that people would take in more plastic by inhaling tiny, invisible plastic fibers floating in the air around them, fibers shed by their own clothes, carpets and upholstery, than they would by eating the mussels.7
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1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,7 https://apple.news/ANZkcJ1YzT5qNJI9q0XwZLA