Microplastics are confirmed in human blood for the first time

We need to research the potential health hazards of widespread microplastics contamination.
Brad Bergan
Microplastics displayed on a human finger.pcess609 / iStock

The ravages of plastic waste aren't finished with us.

Unfortunately, the worst might only be beginning.

In a world-first, scientists have detected microplastics in human blood — with tiny particles found in nearly 80 percent of tested human participants, according to a recent study published in the journal Environmental International.

These tiny particles can move freely throughout the body, and become stuck in organs — which could cause significant health issues. But now that we know, scientists are on watch to understand the full scope of effects — both short- and long-term, on human health.

It's an unnerving discovery, but we're all in this together as scientists rush to explore the potential health effects.

Microplastics are everywhere on Earth

In laboratory experiments, microplastics damaged human cells, and it's well-known that air pollution particles entering the body are linked to millions of death every year. Significant amounts of plastic waste are spread in the global environment, with microplastics abundant throughout the world, from the tallest mountain to the abyssal depths of the Pacific Ocean.

Food and water can contain tiny particles, and even the air we breathe can transmit microplastics into our bodies — baby and adult feces was found to contain particles of the synthetic substance.

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The researchers examined blood samples from 22 anonymous, healthy, and adult donors — and 17 had plastic particles in their bodies. PET plastic was found in half of the samples taken, which is typically found in drinking bottles. Another third of the participants' bodies contained polystyrene, which is used to package food and other materials.

Baby feces has 10 times the microplastic levels of adults

One-quarter of the blood samples had polyethylene, which is the primary material of plastic carrier bags. "Our study is the first indication that we have polymer particles in our blood — it's a breakthrough result," says Ecotoxicologist and Professor Kick Vethaak of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, in a report from the Guardian.

"But we have to extend the research and increased sample sizes, the number of polymers assessed, etc," he added. To Vethaak, this discovery is worthy of concern. "The particles are there and are transported throughout the body." Earlier work has revealed that microplastics are present at 10-fold consistency in the feces of babies, compared to adults.

Microplastics could potentially be linked to the onset of diseases

This could be linked to feeding babies with plastic bottles, during which they swallow millions of microplastic particles every day. "We also know in general that babies and young children are more vulnerable to chemical and particle exposure. That worries me a lot," adds Vethaak, in the report.

The recent research used existing techniques in novel ways to examine particles as tiny as 0.0007 millimeters, with some blood samples revealing more than two kinds of plastic. Of course, these results might be inaccurate if plastic testing materials were used, which is why the researchers used syringe needles combined with glass tubes to eliminate the possibility of contamination.

Where we go from here - "The big question," continued Vethaak in the report, is what this abundance of plastic will do to a human body. They could be moved to specific and common sites or organs — perhaps slipping through the blood-brain barrier. In our brains or elsewhere, microplastics might potentially cause serious diseases. "We urgently need to fund further research so we can find out," says Vethaak. And, with so many other threats to public health, there's no time to waste.

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