Microplastics Discovered in Human Lung Tissue

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microplastics
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For the first time, a team of scientists discovered microplastics in lung tissue from living humans.  

Recently, scientists at the University of Hull and Hull York Medical School conducted a study to identify microplastics in human lung tissue samples. The team collaborated with surgeons at Castle Hill Hospital in East Yorkshire. They collected a total of 13 samples from living patients undergoing thoracic surgical procedures at the hospital. However, surgeons took care to only submit healthy lung samples for the study. Moreover, the study authors also accounted for any procedural or laboratory contamination.

Using spectroscopy, the researchers then analyzed the digested lung tissue samples for microplastic particles. According to the results, 11 out of the 13 samples contained microplastics. Previous scientists have also detected microplastics in human lung tissue samples; however, limited studies are present. And none have used such strong chemical analysis tools as the current one. Thus, making it the first time that the tiny pollutants have been discovered in the deepest parts of the human lungs.

Microplastics have previously been found in human cadaver autopsy samples – this is the first robust study to show microplastics in lungs from live people.

Professor Laura Sadofsky, lead author

Microplastics are plastic fragments less than 5 millimeters in length. They are either manufactured for commercial use or result from the degradation of larger plastic particles. The pollutant seems to be present in every corner of the Earth from the deepest oceans to the peak of the tallest mountain. Moreover, scientists have also reported discovering microplastics in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and even drinking water.

In the study, scientists found a total of 39 microplastics within the samples. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polypropylene and resin formed the majority of the samples. PET is commonly found in drink bottles; polypropylene is used for plastic packaging; and resins, are often used for tyre rubber or paint markings.

Organs, Blood, Placentas, and More

The upper part of the lungs contained 11, while the mid part contained 7 microplastics. However, the highest concentration was present within the lower part of the lungs – 21 in total. Lead author Professor Laura Sadofsky, called the finding ‘surprising’ as the narrow airways in the lower part of the lungs often make it difficult for small particles to go through. Moreover, previous studies predict that only particles smaller than 3 micrometers in diameter can infiltrate the alveolar region of the lungs. However, the current study detected much bigger microplastic particles within the lung samples.

This is surprising as the airways are smaller in the lower parts of the lungs and we would have expected particles of these sizes to be filtered out or trapped before getting this deep into the lungs.

Professor Laura Sadofsky, lead author

Notably, the two samples that did not show the presence of any microplastics, belonged to female donors. Furthermore, male donors generally showed a higher concentration of the pollutants. Study authors attribute this finding to the presence of larger airways in men. However, the current study’s sample size is too small to draw conclusions.    

The complete findings of the study are available in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

This is not the first time that scientists have detected these particles within humans. Just last month, researchers in Amsterdam discovered microplastic in blood samples from several healthy individuals. According to the results, 80% of the samples contained microplastics, with PET and polyethylene being the most abundant. However, this is not the only study to find evidence of plastic pollution affecting humans. Studies have also detected the tiny particles in human placentas, organs, and even faeces.

Are we Inhaling Microplastics?

Previously, scientists at the University of Hull and Hull York Medical School had also recorded high levels of atmospheric microplastics near a busy major road in the area. The year-long study reported the greatest concentrations of polyethylene, nylon, and resins in the atmosphere. Furthermore, scientists also found microplastics of inhalable size and shape.

The results of the current study also point to inhalation as a potential route for the entry of microplastics into the human body. The presence of particles much bigger than the predicted alveolar diameter further confirm this. Thus, the study authors call for a revision of particle sizes that are inhalable and easily lodged in airways.

The characterization of types and levels of microplastics we have found can now inform realistic conditions for laboratory exposure experiments with the aim of determining health impacts.

Professor Laura Sadofsky, lead author

Despite the growing evidence, the health implications of plastic pollution remain unclear. One recent study found 1.5-fold higher levels of microplastics within faecal samples of people suffering from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Thus, suggesting a link between IBD and plastic pollution. However, the research could not establish whether the microplastics are a cause or an effect of the condition.

Nevertheless, the emerging evidence provides important data on the extent of plastic pollution and the need for stricter regulations on its use. Moreover, the study authors believe that the evidence of inhalation as a possible exposure route in humans warrants further studies on its implication on human health.

Reference:

Jenner, L. C., Rotchell, J. M., Bennett, R. T., Cowen, M., Tentzeris, V., & Sadofsky, L. R. (2022). Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μftir spectroscopy. Science of The Total Environment, 831, 154907. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.154907

Jenner LC, Sadofsky LR, Danopoulos E, Chapman E, White D, Jenkins RL, Rotchell JM. Outdoor Atmospheric Microplastics within the Humber Region (United Kingdom): Quantification and Chemical Characterisation of Deposited Particles Present. Atmosphere. 2022; 13(2):265. https://doi.org/10.3390/atmos13020265

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