Autopsies show microplastics in important human organs

By Dennis Thompson
Reporter from HealthDay

MONDAY, August 17, 2020 (HealthDay News) – Microscopic pieces of plastic have probably taken up residence in all the major filter organs in your body, suggests a new laboratory study.

Researchers found evidence of plastic contamination in tissue samples taken from the lungs, liver, spleen and kidneys of donated human corpses.

“We’ve discovered these chemicals in plastic in every organ we’ve examined,” said senior researcher Rolf Halden, director of the Arizona State University (ASU) Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering.

There has long been concern that the chemicals in plastics could have a wide range of health effects, ranging from diabetes and obesity to sexual dysfunction and infertility.

But the presence of these microscopic particles in important organs also increases the potential for them to act as carcinogenic irritants in much the same way as asbestos, Halden explained.

“It’s not always the chemistry that harms us. Sometimes it’s the shape and presence of foreign particles in our bodies,” Halden said. “We know that inhaling asbestos leads to inflammation and that can be followed by cancer.”

Previous research has shown that people consume on average about 5 grams of plastic per week, the equivalent of a credit card, said Dianna Cohen, CEO of the non-profit plastic pollution coalition.

“It is gratifying to see that qualitative quantitative research is being conducted on humans to assess the cumulative harmful effects of these microplastics,” Cohen said of the new study. “On the other hand, it’s totally depressing to see what the scientific advisors in our field have been warning us about for so long about plastic consumption.”

For this study, Halden and colleagues analyzed 47 tissue samples provided by ASU’s Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center, which has built a brain and body bank of donors as part of its research into conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers specifically looked for the presence of particles so small that they could transfer from the digestive system into the bloodstream, where they “circulate with the bloodstream and are suspended in filtering organs such as the lungs or the kidneys or the liver,” explained Halden.

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The team developed a procedure to extract microplastics from the tissue samples, and then analyzed them using a technique called spectrometry.

Microplastics are plastic fragments less than 5 millimeters in diameter, or about 0.2 inches, barely visible to the human eye. The researchers also looked for nanoplastic particles, with a diameter of 1 micron than 0.001 mm. A human hair has a diameter of about 50 microns.

The findings Monday will be presented at the American Chemical Society’s virtual annual meeting. Such research is considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The research team has used its work to create an online calculator that will help other scientists convert information about plastic particles into standard units of mass and surface, which will help assess how much plastic certain human organs have invaded.

The calculator will “make an atlas of human pollution,” Halden said. “We want to create an exposition map for the human body.”

People who want to bring plastic are happy, seeing all the plastic in the environment that is constantly being ground into microscopic particles, Halden and Cohen said.

“It’s impossible to fully protect ourselves from plastic absorption,” Cohen said. “Microplastics are measured in tap water and bottled water, and in the air we breathe.”

Food also contains microplastic particles. Just last week, researchers from the University of Exeter in England and the University of Queensland in Australia found plastic in samples of five different seabirds – oysters, shrimp, squid, crabs and sardines, according to a report published August 12 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

“But you can definitely reduce your exposure by just thinking reusable instead of disposable,” Cohen continued. This includes buying as much unpacked food as possible, and using water bottles and other tableware made from ceramics, metals or other non-plastic sources.

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SOURCES: Rolf Halden, PhD, Director, Arizona State University Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering, Tempe, Ariz .; Dianna Cohen, CEO, Non-Profit Coalition for Plastic Pollution, Washington, DC; Virtual Annual Meeting of the American Chemical Society, August 17, 2020

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