• Are Microplastics Harmful to Humans?

Waste Management

Are Microplastics Harmful to Humans?

Jan 07 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials has found that microplastics are capable of damaging human cells in a laboratory environment. Undertaken as a collaborative project between the University of Hull and the Hull York Medical School, the research found that concentrations of microplastics to which we are regularly exposed can cause allergic reactions and even kill cells completely.

Although the findings are highly concerning, there are still some variables to be investigated which could affect their seriousness. While we know that humans are exposed to microplastics on a daily basis through the food we eat, the water we drink and even the air we breathe, it’s not clear how long they remain in the human body before being excreted. This digestion period could be all-important in determining how harmful microplastics really are to the human body.

Exposure all around us

Microplastics have permeated every inch of our planet, from the highest reaches of Mount Everest to the deepest depths of the Mariana Trench. As such, it’s impossible to go through our daily lives without exposure to them, since they can infiltrate the food chain and inhabit the bodies of the animals we eat and infiltrate the water we drink. There is even evidence that they can be inhaled through tiny particles in the air, though it’s not fully understood how airborne exposure affects us as yet.

The aims of this study were to ascertain whether or not the levels of microplastics found in the human body as a result of consuming contaminated water, table salt and seafood are dangerous. The researchers explored these possibilities by relying on the results of previous studies, which were able to deliver reliable levels of microplastic pollution in the human body. When those concentrations were examined in human cells in the lab, the results were unsettling, to say the least.

Concerning conclusions

The study is the first of its kind to demonstrate that microplastics can cause allergic reactions and cell death at a level correspondent to normal human exposure. Crucially, it’s not known if such damage is occurring in real life, since we do not know how long the human body retains microplastic components before excreting them. However, the study provided significant food for thought, even if it was of the disconcerting variety.

Another major discovery revealed by the research was that irregularly shaped microplastic fragments had a more deleterious impact on the cells than spherical ones. This is important because spherical samples are normally used in laboratory experiments, suggesting that the results of previous investigations may not be reliable. This, coupled with other recent breakthroughs in the field of microplastics research, give the scientific community plenty of avenues to pursue going forward – but also the layperson plenty of cause for concern over their exposure to a substance that is, quite literally, all around us.


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