Microplastics, or tiny plastic particles, are ubiquitous pollutants found almost everywhere on earth. Scientists have detected microplastics near the peak of Mount Everest, in the Mariana Trench and even in baby poop. But researchers have now found a new vessel for microplastics: human blood.
In a paper published in Environment International, researchers found plastic in the blood of 17 of 22 of study participants, or about 77 percent.
“Our study is the first indication that we have polymer particles in our blood – it’s a breakthrough result,” says study author Dick Vethaak, an ecotoxicologist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands, to the Guardian’s Damian Carrington. “But we have to extend the research and increase the sample sizes, the number of polymers assessed, etc.”
Researchers took blood samples from anonymous, healthy adults, and looked for plastics that were between 700 and 500,000 nanometers (nm). Seven hundred nm is around 140 times smaller than the width of a human hair, writes The Wire Science’s Aathira Perinchery.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), commonly used in disposable water bottles, was the most widely encountered plastic polymer and found in about 50 percent of the donors. The second most common, polystyrene (PS), which is used for food packaging and polystyrene foam, was found in about 36 percent, per the study.
“It is certainly reasonable to be concerned,” Vethaak says to the Guardian. “The particles are there and are transported throughout the body.”
Vethaak tells the Independent’s Harry Cockburn that as a result of his research, he’s been cutting down on his own exposure to plastics by limiting single-use plastics and covering food and drinks to avoid plastics entering that way.
The participants could have been exposed to microplastics through air, water and food, but also through personal care products, like toothpaste or lip gloss, that might have been accidentally ingested, dental polymers, parts of implants or tattoo ink residues, per the authors.
Despite the small number of donors in the study and lack of data on their exposure level, pollution expert Fay Couceiro of the University of Portsmouth, who was not involved in the study, tells the AFP that the study was "robust and will stand up to scrutiny.”
The authors write that more research is needed to determine the human health risks involved with plastic in the bloodstream.
"Where is it going in your body?” Vethaak says to the AFP. “Can it be eliminated? Excreted? Or is it retained in certain organs, accumulating maybe, or is it even able to pass the blood-brain barrier?"