Microplastics identified in human blood

According to a new article and study published in the open access journal Environment International, microplastics have been discovered in human blood for the first time.
This article drew quite a lot of attention on social media, diluting and confusing the actual implications of this discovery, as well as other aspects of the research conducted in the article.
“Discovery and quantification of plastic particle pollution in human blood,” was a collaboration between scientists at the department of environment and health at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the Amsterdam University Medical Center. As its abstract describes, the goal of the study was to develop a clear way of identifying and quantifying microplastics in human blood, and then to apply that analysis to a sample group of 22 healthy volunteers from the general public.
In the process, not only were the scientists able to identify microplastics in the blood of 17 of the 22 volunteers, but they were also able to identify and quantify four distinct polymers used in the plastic: “Polyethylene terephthalate, polyethylene and polymers of styrene (a sum parameter of polystyrene, expanded polystyrene, acetonitrile butadiene styrene etc.) were the most widely encountered, followed by poly(methyl methacrylate).”
In an article published in the Guardian, Professor of Ecotoxicology at VU Amsterdam Dick Vethaak, one of the article’s contributors discussed its wider implications.
“The big question is, what is happening in our body?” Vethaak said to the Guardian. “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.”
A review paper discussing the cancer risks of microplastics in human blood that Vethaak contributed to, quoted in the same article, expands on this idea.
“More detailed research on how micro- and nano-plastics affect the structures and processes of the human body, and whether and how they can transform cells and induce carcinogenesis, is urgently needed, particularly in light of the exponential increase in plastic production,” Vethaak said to the Guardian. “The problem is becoming more urgent with each day.”
The UK-based non-governmental organization Common Seas, a non-profit that seeks to combat plastic pollution in rivers and oceans, helped fund the original research into microplastics in the human bloodstream and is now advocating for sweeping new government investment into this research.
According to a Change.org petition started by the organization’s founder Jo Royle on its behalf, Common Seas is advocating that the UK government allocate 15 million pounds from existing government research funds into research regarding the impacts of plastic on human health.
As a result of this forthcoming research, activists are attempting to expand the general public’s knowledge of the more immediate negative effects on humans that climate pollution has brought about.
“What’s even more alarming is that plastic producers want to invest £2.3 trillion into making more plastic,” Royle states in the petition. “I think it’s morally wrong to invest £2.3 trillion in something that isn’t just killing millions of animals and destroying habitats around the world, but could be the root of so much human suffering too.”
Vethaak also spoke on the current state of knowledge regarding the proliferation of microplastics around humans.
“It is certainly reasonable to be concerned,” Vethaak told the Guardian. “The particles are there and are transported throughout the body.”
He said previous work had shown that microplastics were ten times higher in the feces of babies compared with adults and that babies fed with plastic bottles are swallowing millions of microplastic particles a day.
“We also know in general that babies and young children are more vulnerable to chemical and particle exposure,” Vethaak told the Guardian. “That worries me a lot.”
Common Sea is one of many NGOs in the environmental justice space who are searching for political and social solutions to the continued plastic pollution crisis. Along with financing further research into the effects of plastic on humans, Common Sea also cites the importance of pushing government policy: setting thresholds, processing requirements and plastic waste disposal regulations are institutional methods that, when enforced properly, can significantly reduce the negative impact of the plastic industry, according to Common Sea.
As scientists and environmentalists continue to discuss and further research the implications of this discovery, the only consensus seems to be that the full scope of microplastics and their effect on humans is yet to be realized, something that may or may not affect a whole scope of biological functions and one’s likelihood of disease.
As the abstract of the original paper states: “This pioneering human biomonitoring study demonstrated that plastic particles are bioavailable for uptake into the human bloodstream. An understanding of the exposure of these substances in humans and the associated hazard of such exposure is needed to determine whether or not plastic particle exposure is a public health risk.”