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How microplastics accumulate in the human body, and can this be affected


Source: RBC

Scientists from the University of Arizona have discovered several types of polymers in the tissues of human organs. RBC tells what this discovery could mean.

Photo: Shutterstock

With the onset of the new school year in many countries around the world, children went to school wearing disposable masks. Together with other measures related to the use of synthetic materials to protect against coronavirus, this has exacerbated the already serious problem of the concentration of microplastics in the environment. Given the latest data from scientists from Arizona that it is delayed by the internal organs, the situation is worrisome.

What is microplastic

Microplastic is any piece of polymer less than 5 mm in size. It is most often formed by the abrasion of large chunks of material released into the environment. In 2019, Environmental Science and Technology reviewed 26 studies on this topic. It turned out that the average American consumes 39-52 thousand particles of plastic along with food per year (the amount depends on the gender and age of the respondents). If we take into account the content of this material in the atmosphere, then the numbers will be approximately two times higher, since most often we breathe microplastics together with air.

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How harmful is microplastic

Until recently, there was no evidence of how harmful microplastics are to the human body. This is partly due to the fact that the ideal analytical method for determining the number of such particles in tissues simply did not exist yet. Moreover, it is quite difficult to recognize foreign elements. The diameter of nanoparticles reaches 0,001 mm. However, Greenpeace warns that polymers may contain additives that are toxic and harmful to humans. And some, according to animal studies, provoke cancer, inflammation and infertility. It is also known that the marine fauna, including birds and turtles, microplastic in the body causes a lot of pain: it blocks the digestive tract, accumulates in the stomach and disrupts the system of organisms.

It will be possible to understand how harmful such polymer particles are to people thanks to new technologies used by scientists from the University of Arizona. The researchers took 47 samples of human tissue, including organs: lungs, liver, spleen, and kidneys. In all of the submitted materials, they were able to identify dozens of component types, including polycarbonate, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyethylene, and bisphenol A, which is a toxic substance.

“We don't want to be alarmists in any way,” study co-author Varun Kelkar told The Guardian. "However, we are concerned that these non-biodegradable materials, which are everywhere, [can] penetrate and accumulate in human tissue, and we do not know the possible health consequences."

Scientists plan to create a single online database with research results on this topic, as well as actively work with volunteers. Tissue bank donors often provide information about their lifestyle, diet, and occupation. These data can help determine the main routes of human exposure to microplastics.

What foods contain the most microplastics

In the modern world, it is impossible to avoid the ingress of polymers into the body. Most of them are found in the air. Even in the Pyrenees, 365 particles were recorded per sq. m. In bottled water there are 1, in apples - 325. Microplastics enter fruits and vegetables through water and soil. According to WWF, every week we eat 195,5 grams of polymers (the weight of a credit card) or 5 grams per year (the weight of a small tablet).

Particles are found not only in plant and animal foods. They are found in clothing, cosmetics, shampoos and other household chemicals.

According to the UN, more than 9 billion tons of plastic have been produced in the world. This is about 1 ton per person. And the pandemic has only made things worse. According to the journal Environmental Science and Technology, in addition to the usual garbage due to the COVID-19 pandemic, humanity annually throws away 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves, which are also made from polymers.

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How one person can reduce consumption and production of microplastics

It will not be possible to completely protect yourself from the ingress of microplastics into the body. However, it is possible to reduce its amount in the body and in the atmosphere. For this you need:

  • Avoid buying plastic bottles. Filtered water contains 22 times less polymer particles.
  • Limit consumption of seafood and fish. Meat contains less polymers, but scientists recommend reducing its consumption as well. This doesn't mean you need to go vegan, it just doesn't mean eating protein every day.
  • Pay attention to the composition of body care products. Microbeads, which are often used in scrubs, deodorants, and toothpastes, may contain plastic particles. The same goes for cosmetics, especially those that use glitter. It must be completely eliminated.
  • Try to purchase clothing made from biomaterials. Nylon, spandex, polyester throw micropolymers into the water when washed.
  • Machine wash, ideally, is also better to shorten, while it is advisable to use a heating mode of up to 30 degrees, and instead of using a dryer, hang things out in fresh air.
  • Reduce the use of all plastic items, including tennis balls, cigarettes (filters are also made from polymers) and styrofoam.
  • When cleaning, use rags and brooms made of biomaterials.

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