While the dangers of plastic pollution entering and contaminating our waste streams have long been widely discussed, new studies show alarming rates of plastic particles appearing in the human body, such as in human bloodstreams, cardiac tissue, digestive systems, and lungs.
Microplastics, or fragments of plastic debris measuring less than 5mm long, had previously been found in human faecal matter, lungs and placentas as early as 2018. However, up until now, we had little evidence of these materials appearing in enclosed internal organs.
The past two years have seen a slew of groundbreaking studies report increasingly distressing findings regarding the presence of microplastics in various organs and human blood. The dangers of plastic pollution might hardly be considered breaking news in 2023, but these reports have shifted scientists’ and environmentalists’ concerns into high gear. The full scope of the existing and potential side effects of the enduring presence of plastic in human biology is not yet fully known, although it doesn’t take a seasoned environmentalist to tell that it’s hardly good news for us.
March 2022 marked the first time that scientists detected microscopic plastic particles in the bloodstreams of almost 80% of the subjects tested. This concerning discovery comes after scientists already became aware of human consumption of plastic particles in the form of food and water and the inhalation of air.
Shockingly, plastic particles have been found in the faeces of adults and even babies. In fact, babies and infants exhibit higher vulnerability to the exposure of microplastics and other dangerous chemicals associated with plastic production, and previous research has shown that the amount of microplastics found in the stools of babies is ten times greater compared to the stools of adults.
However, after these initial studies were published, there was still room for reasonable doubt that the presence of microplastics in human faeces was cause for concern. Perhaps, many experts speculated, the plastic particles were simply moving through the digestive tract and eventually expelled, without ever becoming absorbed into the human body. But more recent research shows that this may have been a naive assumption.
The discovery of plastic in the bloodstream exhibits the human body’s ability to transport these foreign materials from one part of the body to another, allowing them to become dangerously lodged in organs.
More recently, a study published in July 2023 found microplastics present in the hearts of patients who were undergoing cardiac surgery. The study, conducted in Beijing, recorded nine types of microplastics across five types of cardiac tissue and also recorded the presence of microplastics in the patients’ bloodstreams. It’s also worth noting that the patients had their blood tested for microplastics before their surgical procedures as well as after, and the presence of microplastics was found both times, further proving that the plastic materials did not come from the surgeries themselves.
As the amount and type of microplastics varied heavily between blood samples in this particular study, future studies have subsequently been set up and are currently under way, as the experts involved attempt to clearly define exactly what this means for the future of the human body.
Furthermore, 2022 saw the publication of a UK study that recognised the presence of plastic materials in human lungs. Laura Sadofsky, a senior author of the study, says that this new data “provides an important advance in the field of air pollution, microplastics and human health,” as it rendered surprising results in terms of the size and sheer amount of microplastics found in the lungs of the eleven medical subjects undergoing surgery.
It is yet to be confirmed exactly how such materials have found their way into the very fabric of our bodies, but many environmentalists and researchers can easily spot the link between these studies and an ever-increasing amount of plastic polluting our natural environments and making its way into our food sources.
“It is certainly reasonable to be concerned,” said Professor Dick Vethaak, an ecotoxicologist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands, of the study that reported microplastics found in human bloodstreams. “The big question is, what is happening in our body?” He further stressed the need to fund further research so that definitive conclusions can be made, and appropriate action can be taken.
In the meantime, plastic production shows no sign of slowing. In fact, the output of this industry is expected to double by 2040, and environmentalists are uncovering plastic recycling as an “elaborate myth”. Indeed, perhaps the most alarming aspect of the aforementioned studies and their bleak findings is the lack of any action or change in plastic production and rampant pollution since their publication. Clearly, this is no longer merely an environmentalist issue, but a chronic problem that affects the health and well-being of every living human.
Environmentalists can only hope that upcoming studies will continue to drive home the distressing effects of plastic pollution until real action is taken. For now, we can only guess at the implications to human health for generations to come and attempt to find sustainable solutions that might effectively remove the need for plastic in our daily lives. If not, these studies may not be the most foreboding ones we see, as plastic production becomes an ever-growing threat to our collective existence