While plastic is useful, its exceptionally long decomposition rate also makes it environmentally problematic. There are entire rafts of discarded plastic floating in our oceans, with some claiming that there will be more plastic than fish in our seas by 2050. But can that plastic invade our bodies?
While it can take 450 years for a single plastic water bottle to degrade, plastics do get pulverized into smaller and smaller bits during their very long lifespan. These particles are called microplastics when they are less than 5 mm in diameter, and nanoplastics when they have diameters under 0.05 mm. While smaller bits of plastic might seem better than bigger pieces, the reverse is true. The small size means that plastic can now get into places it could not before.
But can it get inside our bodies? And more importantly, is it a threat if it does?
According to Charles Rolsky, a postdoctoral student studying plastic pollution at Arizona State University:
“You can find plastics contaminating the environment at virtually every location on the globe, and in a few short decades, we’ve gone from seeing plastic as a wonderful benefit to considering it a threat. There’s evidence that plastic is making its way into our bodies, but very few studies have looked for it there. And at this point, we don’t know whether this plastic is just a nuisance or whether it represents a human health hazard.”
In research presented at the Fall 2020 Meeting of American Chemical Society, Rolsky reported that screenings carried out by himself and his colleagues revealed that monomers, the building blocks of plastics, were found in each of 47 human liver and fat tissue samples analyzed.
The researchers believe that this is the first time a study was conducted potentially identifying micro- and nanoplastics (or at least, their precursors) in human tissues. They also say that more research will need to be carried out to determine if the plastic build-up in our bodies is a threat. However, previous animal studies have shown a link between minuscule plastic particles and inflammation, infertility, and cancer.
“We never want to be alarmist, but it is concerning that these non-biodegradable materials that are present everywhere can enter and accumulate in human tissues, and we don’t know the possible health effects,” said Arizona State’s Varun Kelkar, who was also involved in the research. “Once we get a better idea of what’s in the tissues, we can conduct epidemiological studies to assess human health outcomes. That way, we can start to understand the potential health risks, if any.”