By Guest Blogger, Tom Maclaren
A study by Dutch scientists at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the Amsterdam University Medical Centre has revealed microplastics in the bloodstream of just under 80% of their volunteer blood donors, as reported in the national and international press. Microplastics are what you’d imagine them to be – tiny plastic particles, specifically smaller than 5mm. Microplastics are either manufactured for use in everyday products (e.g., some beauty products), can be shed from clothing and textiles, and also form when larger plastics are broken down over time.
The 17 volunteers in the study, out of a total of 22, were found to have various microplastics in their blood. The most common of these was PET (polyethylene terephthalate). The products that are made from PET are recognisable worldwide. These include fizzy drinks bottles, water bottles, food jars and packaging for frozen foods. In the blood samples, about a third contained polystyrene, often found in packaging, and a quarter contained polyethylene, found in supermarket carrier bags.
It is not yet known how these microplastics enter the human bloodstream, yet we know that there are many ways in which microplastics come into contact with our bodies. This can be through ingestion, be this microplastics in or on our food and drinks. Also, microplastics are sometimes put into cosmetic and personal care products, such as lipsticks, creams and ointments. Once they are applied to the body, microplastics can be absorbed through the skin. For example, research in 2021 showed that as much as 72% of sunscreens contained microplastics. Lastly, as microplastics are inherently very small, many can become airborne and therefore we are prone to inhaling them as well.
As microplastics are everywhere, this begs the question: how does their presence in our blood affect us? It is important to note that as this study has only recently uncovered the reality of microplastics in our blood, further studies are required to determine exactly how these microplastics are affecting us. However, there are scientists and researchers who have speculated about their effects. These mainly involve the potential for the blood to transport microplastics to our organs.
How can we minimise our risk? Well, this is a tough question to answer given that there are so many unknowns about microplastics. Also, we can’t quickly remove microplastics from our environment, with microplastics being everywhere from the deepest ocean floors, with CSIROs report estimating that there are 14 million tonnes of microplastics on the seafloor, to the highest mountain peaks. However, there are certainly ways that individuals can reduce their contribution to the spread of microplastics into the environment and their bodies. Using alternatives to single-use plastics, such as metal and cardboard, and having responsible disposing habits will certainly help. Lastly, by educating oneself and then, in turn, passing information on, a widespread effort can be achieved.