A new method could help detect microplastics in human tissues and organs, allowing researchers to investigate the impact that environmental plastic pollution has on our health.
Last year, Rolf Halden at Arizona State University and his colleagues discovered molecules from commonly used plastics, such as bisphenol A, in human liver and fat tissue samples. They have now investigated whether larger, microplastic particles might be detectable if they made their way into human tissues.
The researchers took 47 human tissue samples from lungs, liver, spleen and kidneys, spiked them with various different microplastics and digested them with chemicals. They then tested whether they could detect and quantify microplastic fragments in the samples using established spectroscopic methods.
They found that it was possible to identify dozens of types of plastic components, including polycarbonate, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyethylene – in addition to bisphenol A.
“We are literally surrounded by plastic throughout our daily lives. We are now positioned to better define plastic pollution in the human body,” says Halden. “Whether, where and to what extent plastic fragments accumulate in different human tissues and organs is the focus of still ongoing research.”
Halden and his colleagues also developed an online tool to enable researchers to standardise their measurements of microplastics in human tissues by converting information on plastic particle count into units of mass and surface area. Their research was presented at the American Chemical Society Fall 2020 virtual meeting today.
“There is currently no ideal analytical method to quantify microplastic particles in human tissues,” says Dick Vethaak at the Deltares research centre in the Netherlands.
Vethaak says that if the new method could be used to screen human tissues for the presence of microplastics, it will be important to make sure it can rule out contamination of samples, for instance with microplastics in the air.
Stephanie Wright at Imperial College London says there is evidence from animal studies that microplastics can cause damage in the body. But it still isn’t clear whether microplastics could be making their way into human organs. Wright says “the big question” for future research will be whether microplastics have any impact on human health.
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