(Down to Earth: Health)
March 28: Microplastics detected in human blood for the very first time – https://www.downtoearth.org.in/video/pollution/microplastics-detected-in-human-blood-for-the-very-first-time-82111
- GS-3: Pollution
Microplastics detected in human blood for the very first time
Context: Plastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental problems of our time. Plastic litter is a common sight in urban areas but it has also found its way into the wild. It is in every natural habitat imaginable: forests, deserts, rivers, soil.
Even our highest mountains and deepest oceans haven’t been spared. Trekkers have left behind plastic waste on Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest peak. In 2019, a submersible dove into the Mariana trench, the world’s deepest point in the ocean, and found a plastic grocery bag and sweets wrappers on the seafloor. We are launching thousands of satellites into space; debris from these spacecraft – including plastic – are drifting around there.
Name any ecosystem you can think of. If humans have been there (or nearby), so has plastic.
Microplastic pollution has been detected in human blood for the first time. The study, published in the journal Environment International, tested 22 anonymous blood samples.
Scientists found tiny particles of microplastics in almost 80 per cent of the people tested. The discovery shows the particles can travel around the body and may lodge in organs.
- Half the samples contained Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, commonly used in drinks bottles.
- While a third contained polystyrene, used for packaging food and other products.
- Some of the blood samples contained two or three types of plastic.
Microplastics were also observed to cause damage to human cells in the laboratory. People were already known to consume the tiny particles via food and water. Researchers have earlier found microplastics in the faeces of babies and adults.
What is Microplastic?
- Microplastics are microscopic pieces of plastic. Usually, they are fragments smaller than 5 mm wide.
- Microplastics arise from both primary and secondary sources.
- Primary sources are those where plastic has been crafted in tiny pieces – like plastic pellets or tiny beads that are 2-5 mm wide. They are made from polyester (which in turn is made from petroleum and coal). Pellets are a common raw material in the plastic industry because they can be melted down to manufacture many other larger plastic products, like plastic bags and containers. Other primary sources of microplastic include microbeads, which are found in several personal care products including face scrubs, and paint.
- Secondary sources of microplastics include plastic bags, bottles and almost every other plastic object that breaks down into smaller pieces over time.
- Such pieces are often invisible to the human eye. In the new study, the sizes of microplastics were around 700 nm in diameter. That is around 140 times smaller than the width of a single human hair.
Because microplastics are so small, it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which they have invaded our planet and the bodies of its living things.
The Way Forward
Environmentalists, policymakers and governments appear to be taking note of the dangers of microplastics in the environment. At the UN Environment Assembly, more than 170 countries pledged to develop an international, legally-binding treaty to tackle plastic pollution by 2024. This draft resolution includes microplastics as a type of pollutant.
- While we have found microplastics everywhere, we don’t exactly know how they can harm humans, although some of its components are likely to be bad news. For example, styrene – one of the microplastics that scientists recently discovered in human blood – could be a human carcinogen.
- But as we wait for more studies, one thing is certain: we need to act fast. This is why the international treaty on plastic pollution could be crucial. Some curbs on plastic pollution could go a long way to stem the invasion of microplastics.
The authors write that more research is needed to determine the human health risks involved with plastic in the bloodstream.
- “Where is it going in your body? Can it be eliminated? Excreted? Or is it retained in certain organs, accumulating maybe, or is it even able to pass the blood-brain barrier?”
- An international treaty on plastic pollution is on the cards – it could be crucial to microplastic, and plastic, menace.
Can you answer the following question?
- There is no Plan B because we do not have a Planet B. Discuss.
- Do you think a complete ban on single-use plastic can address the problem of pollution in a sustainable manner? Isn’t sustainable management of plastic use through the ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ approach a better way to handle pollution? Critically examine.