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  • Siobhan Kelly

We’re Inhaling Microplastics Everyday.

In recent decades, plastic production levels have skyrocketed to a deadly degree, and as

humans continue to generate over 400 million tons of plastic each year, potential risks to human health are imminent. Lately, researchers have begun to express concern for the increase of microplastics (MPs) - plastic particles smaller than 5mm - found in both oceans and the atmosphere. Because of the light weight of these MPs, humans inhale and ingest the pollutants everyday without knowing it. In December of 2020, a team of scientists found that 67% of pregnant women participating in their study were carrying various microplastics in their placenta.

Figure 1. Pigmented particles made up of Polypropylene found in the placenta. Image retrieved from Ragusa et al.,’s study.

(Fig. 1). Now, researchers are scrutinizing microplastics and the environmental transport process that allows them to settle in the human body in such great quantities. Studies are beginning to notice connections between bodily microplastics and toxicity within childrens’ respiratory systems. So… if you didn’t care about air pollution before, it’s time to start!

What are microplastics? Where do they come from?

Microplastics exist in the air as small fibres that derive from different organic chemical industries- mostly synthetic fibres. Despite this, there is an ever-growing demand for synthetic fibres as they are used to create tires, belts, hoses, home furnishings, clothing, and more. MPs are also released when larger plastics do not degrade properly, become physically weathered down or are exposed to too much UV radiation. They can be discharged through fertilizers, float through the air and then settle on surfaces as ‘urban dust.’

How are we exposed?

Unborn babies are exposed to microplastics as their health is dependent on their mother’s, who, unknowingly, absorbs microplastics everyday through three major pathways: dermal touch, ingestion, and inhalation. Ingestion and dermal touch are directly correlated as people touch areas infested with MPs and then right after, their face. So, the health effects of microplastics are amplified for small children who often put their hands in their mouth. Otherwise, humans inhale pollutants as synthetic fibres travel through the atmosphere. Inhalation is considered to be the worse of the three hazards because it is invisible in nature and particularly invasive: in a recent study conducted by Environmental Science and Technology, they found that we consume 39,000-52,000 and inhale over 74,000 MPs a year.

MPs in the Placenta

In 2021, a group of scientists found 12 pigmented microplastics in the placentas of 4 women, half of them being ~10µm in size. In the study, only ~23g of the organ was tested (the entire placenta weighs ~600g), indicating that the total number of microplastics in the placenta is actually much higher. Notably, all participating mothers in Ragusa et al.,’s study were completely healthy and had unproblematic pregnancies. The study deduced that the MPs primarily derived from pigment in paint, makeup, cosmetics, and stained plastic products. Other samples came from fragrances and air fresheners.

How will this affect human health?

The placenta is fundamental to the growth of an unborn baby: the organ acts as the fetus’ liver, kidneys, guts and lungs up until they are able to support themselves and then finally, it is abandoned at childbirth. Some suspect that MPs will cause modifications to crucial cellular regulating pathways in the placenta, particularly the communication between the embryo and the uterus, which can lead to erratic pregnancies. Others believe that placental MPs could generate transgenerational metabolic and reproductive defects for people in the future. When incredibly small MPs are widespread inside the lungs, they can lead to chronic inflammation, or ‘dust overload.’ One report found that employees who work directly with synthetic tile, vinyl chloride or polyvinyl chloride are likely to develop respiratory problems to do with interstitial lung disease, proving the relationship that exists between inhaling MPs and respiratory troubles. Once MPs are able to interact with epithelial lining in the lungs, they can cause toxicity within the body; this opens the gate for many medical issues such as oxidative stress, secretion of cytokines, cellular damage, inflammatory reactions, and even DNA damage.

So, what can we do?

Two researchers, Warsito and Putranto, conducted a study in 2020 examining alternative micro plastic contamination prevention efforts, primarily focusing on changing society’s behaviours in terms of plastic use and disposal. They demand that we replace plastic grocery bags with reusable ones, and that vendors stop handing out plastic straws. Waste needs to be properly sorted into organic, inorganic and plastic categories and then recycled. Products are beginning to be made from recycled plastic, and community jobs can be created in proper waste management. Although Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom have all implemented a ban on microplastics in toiletries, every country should remove them from products; Improved filtration technologies in wastewater treatment plants should be added around the world to help separate MPs from drinking water, giving priority to regions where boil water advisories are still in effect. Lastly, researchers suggest that governments must collaborate internationally to clean up plastic debris on the ocean since it is a major source of plastic pollution. To date, there is no notable solution to prevent micro plastic exposure in children. Rather, scientists are calling for mitigative change through environmental preventative measures that will inherently reduce human exposure. Ultimately, it is critical that this topic becomes a prevalent course of study given the potential health consequences microplastics pose for vulnerable infants. 

In Conclusion…

Simply put, overconsumption has accelerated the creation of synthetic fibres, prompting a vast array of microplastics to enter the atmosphere and invade humans’ pulmonary systems. The possible health effects are exacerbated for young infants and babies because they often touch their face and do not possess the cells to defend themselves against toxicity, illness, and disease. For us as a society, we must learn to dispose of our plastics ethically and reassess our need for all things synthetic; our childrens’ health is more important than one more polyester t-shirt.


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