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03-10-2024

Microplastics found inside human arteries after stroke and heart attack events

Microplastics are everywhere on Earth, from the deepest ocean trenches to the highest mountains. A new study from the University of Campania has shown something surprising – these microplastics can also be found inside people’s arteries. 

This revelation raises concerns as microplastics could be connected to serious health problems like heart attacks and stroke.

Microplastics in arteries

Microscopic plastic pollutants, called microplastics, are tiny – less than 5 millimeters in size. They come from the breakdown of plastic products we use every day, including clothes and cosmetics. 

The recent study in Naples, Italy, investigated this issue. Doctors examined fatty deposits, called plaque, inside the arteries of 304 patients. 

Plaque buildup can block arteries, and sometimes surgeons remove it during procedures. The study’s alarming finding was that microplastics were present in the plaque of over half the patients – a concerning 58%.

Microplastics affecting heart health

The presence of microplastics in arteries is a red flag, potentially linked to a significantly increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and even death. 

The researchers found a nearly 4.5-fold greater chance of these cardiovascular events within just 3 years for individuals with microplastics in their arteries.  This association is particularly alarming because it held true even after accounting for established risk factors like high blood pressure, smoking, and cholesterol.

Inflammation caused by microplastics

Microplastics in arteries may fuel chronic inflammation, boosting heart disease risk. The study revealed higher levels of inflammatory proteins in people with microplastic-laden arteries. 

These proteins are common in heart disease and are believed to worsen the condition by promoting inflammation and damaging blood vessel walls. While inflammation is the body’s natural defense against injury or infection, prolonged inflammation is linked to various health problems. 

Microplastics trapped in arterial plaque might trigger the immune system to attack them, leading to chronic inflammation. This persistent inflammatory state could then accelerate the development and progression of heart disease.

According to the World Health Organization, the potential impacts of plastics on health have become an issue of global concern due to risks and harms from plastics at each stage of their lifecycle.

Plastic is convenient and useful, but there’s so much of it around that it’s harming the environment and potentially making people sick. Experts warn that we should not be fooled by the convenience of plastics. 

“People must become aware of the risks we are taking with our lifestyle,” noted Dr Raffaele Marfella, first author on the study at the University of Campania Luigi. 

“I hope the alarm message from our study will raise the consciousness of citizens, especially governments, to finally become aware of the importance of the health of our planet. To put it in a slogan that can unite the need for health for humans and the planet, plastic-free is healthy for the heart and the Earth.”

How microplastics enter the body

Since microplastics are everywhere in our surroundings, we can ingest them in a number of ways. This is particularly concerning when you consider the health risks of microplastics such as heart attacks and stroke.

Food we eat

We often swallow microplastics when we eat. Seafood, especially shellfish and fish, may contain microplastics because they live in polluted water. Fruits and vegetables can also get contaminated. 

Water we drink

Microplastics have been found in tap water, bottled water, and even lakes and rivers. Plastic trash breaks down over time, or because tiny bits of plastic flake off from plastic pipes as water travels through them. 

Air we breathe 

We can also breathe in microplastics, especially indoors. Dust particles that contain microplastics can float around in the air from things like carpets, furniture, and clothes. Even outside, air pollution often contains microplastics from car tires, road paint, and plastic waste. 

Other unexpected ways

Microplastics have been found in things like salt, sugar, honey, and even beer, showing how widespread they are. Microplastics can also be in some hygiene products like toothpaste and cosmetics. We might accidentally swallow these, or they might seep into our skin.

Tips to limit microplastic exposure

It might seem difficult to avoid microplastics completely these days, but there are ways to limit their exposure:

  • Choose natural fibers: Opt for clothing made from natural materials like cotton, wool, hemp, or bamboo to avoid releasing plastic fibers during washing.
  • Use water filters: Invest in a reliable water filter to remove microplastics from drinking water, whether sourced from tap water or bottled water.
  • Avoid single-use plastics: Minimize the use of disposable plastic items such as bags, straws, utensils, and water bottles by opting for reusable alternatives made from glass, stainless steel, or silicone.
  • Purchase unpackaged foods: Buy fresh produce from farmers’ markets or bulk stores to reduce reliance on plastic packaging for fruits, vegetables, and grains.
  • Check personal care products: Be mindful of personal care items containing microplastics like polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP). Look for products labeled “microplastic-free” or containing natural exfoliants such as sugar or salt.
  • Choose minimal packaging: Select products with minimal or recyclable packaging, and consider buying in bulk to reduce plastic waste. Bring your own reusable containers or bags when shopping.
  • Dispose of plastic responsibly: Properly dispose of plastic waste by recycling whenever possible and avoiding littering. Responsible waste management helps prevent plastic from breaking down into microplastics in the environment.
  • Support plastic reduction nitiatives: Get involved in efforts to reduce plastic pollution by supporting policies and initiatives in your community. Raise awareness about the issue and advocate for long-term solutions.

The research is published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

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