Microplastics discovered in human blood for the first time

  • Microplastics have been discovered in human blood for the first time, in a new study involving 22 people.
  • This is the first evidence that the human body absorbs and circulates plastics in the blood.
  • Human health risks are unclear, as research has focused on plastic additives.

Microplastics – fragments of plastic smaller than a fingernail that never fully break down – seemed to be everywhere already. They have been found in the Mariana Trench and on top of Mount Everest, in dust, food and drinking water, in human placentas and baby bottles.

Now scientists have found them in human blood.

Of 22 healthy adults in a Dutch study, published Thursday in the journal Environment International, 17 had plastic particles in their blood. It’s a small group of people, but the study is the first of its kind.

“This is really the first evidence of plastic polymers getting into the bloodstream,” Rolf Halden, director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University, who was not involved in the study, told Insider. study. “What this means is quite uncertain, but it is disturbing news.”

Because it’s in the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe, the average American ingests about 50,000 microplastic particles each year and inhales about the same amount, according to a analysis from 2019. Another study, from 2021, estimates that the average person ingests the value of a plastic credit card each week.

Other research has found plastic in the poop of infants and adults, but these are just particles that pass through the digestive system without being absorbed. The presence of microplastics in human placentas suggested that they traveled in the blood, but this was not direct evidence. This is the first definitive evidence of plastics being absorbed into the human bloodstream, where they can travel all around the body, Halden said.

tablespoon filled with shredded blue plastic

The recycled, shredded plastic in this porcelain soup spoon is equivalent to the amount of microplastics one person can consume each week, according to a 2019 analysis.

Anand Katakam/Illustration/Reuters

“It means that [microplastics] stay longer than just passing through the gastrointestinal tract,” Heather Leslie, a chemist and ecotoxicologist, who led the study while working at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, told Insider.

It is unclear what this means for human health. But by proving the presence of plastics in human blood, Leslie and his colleagues hope to secure more funding for research into potential health impacts.

“I expect that ultimately we will all be exposed,” Marja Lamoree, a chemist at Vrije Universiteit and co-author of the study, told Insider.

“It’s really too early to say whether it’s safe or not,” she added.

Scientists are ‘in the dark’ about the health effects of plastic

toddler drinks bottled water

A child drinks bottled water in Reynosa, Mexico on June 9, 2021.

Daniel Becerril/Reuters

Studies of common chemicals in plastics have linked them to an increased risk of cancer, fertility and developmental issues, and hormonal disruption. However, most research into human health and plastics has focused on single molecules or additives like BPA, rather than the polymers – chains of molecules – that make up the plastic itself.

When it comes to polymers in blood, Halden said, “we’re basically in the dark.”

Leslie’s team isolated the plastic particles from the blood, then heated the sample to vaporize any plastic additives present, so only the polymers remained.

These polymers are tiny residues of plastic that have crumbled into dust, which permeate our home environment, our food and our water, and come off everyday objects like clothes and tires.

“We’ve been using plastic for a century, but we didn’t think about plastic dust until recently,” Leslie said.

The next step was to further heat the samples so that the masses could be measured. Finally, they could calculate the mass of the polymers.

Study participants had an average of 1.6 micrograms of plastic polymers in each milliliter of blood. This concentration is equivalent to one teaspoon of plastic in 10 large tubs of water. It is unclear both what a safe concentration of blood plastic might be and what the health effects of too much plastic are.

There’s a lot more plastic to study inside human bodies

pita breads lined up in plastic bags on a table

An Egyptian baker waits for customers with plastic bags of bread in Cairo, Egypt on March 16, 2022.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

Now that scientists know that microplastics exist in human blood and can measure these plastics, they are looking to find out more.

Leslie is part of a cohort of scientists expanding their research to examine the blood of more people, she said. They also test intestinal and lung tissue for microplastics.

There are still smaller plastic particle sizes that the new study couldn’t measure. These tiny particles might be able to cross the blood-brain barrier or travel to other tissues, which could wreak havoc that scientists have yet to discover.

“Plastics are everywhere,” Halden said, adding, “And now we’re learning that they’re not just limited to the environment, but have entered us. And the results of this exposure are, for the time, unknown.”

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