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Plastic can silently enter our body with every breath we take

The insidious reach of plastic pollution extends far beyond our oceans and landfills. Disturbing new research reveals that with every breath we take, we might be inhaling tiny fragments of plastic in air known as microplastics and nanoplastics.

A recent study led by Dr. Suvash Saha at the University of Technology Sydney uncovers the path these minuscule pollutants take within our bodies and the potential health risks they pose.

Micro and nanoplastics

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that measure less than 5 millimeters in size (think of a sesame seed for comparison). They originate from two primary sources.

First, larger plastic products like bottles, bags, and other packaging can break down over time due to sunlight, heat, and general wear and tear. This process creates smaller and smaller plastic fragments.

In addition, microplastics are sometimes intentionally manufactured and added to products such as cosmetics (think of those tiny microbeads in face washes) and certain industrial materials.

Nanoplastics are substantially smaller than microplastics. They’re so incredibly tiny that they are measured in nanometers, which are equivalent to one-billionth of a meter. Their minuscule size makes nanoplastics particularly challenging to detect and study. Scientists are still actively investigating the specific origins of nanoplastics.

Some potential sources include the continued breakdown of microplastics into even smaller pieces or release during specific manufacturing or waste disposal processes.

Plastic is present in every breath

Plastic particle air pollution is now pervasive and inhalation ranks as the second most likely pathway for human exposure,” said Dr. Saha.

It is an indiscriminate problem, meaning it affects environments everywhere, not just specific locations. Research has shown that contamination with microplastics and nanoplastics is widespread in both indoor and outdoor settings.

Indoor environments

Synthetic fibers from clothing, carpets, and furniture can easily shed tiny plastic particles into the air. Additionally, personal care products containing microplastics, or the breakdown of other plastic items within the home, also contribute to indoor plastic pollution.

Outdoor environments

The outdoors is exposed to a wide range of plastic pollution sources. Microplastics can be carried by wind and water from landfills and other waste disposal sites. Tire wear from vehicles releases plastic particles into the air. Plus, larger plastic debris exposed to the elements can fragment into microplastics and nanoplastics over time.

Modeling plastic presence and breathing

Since directly observing the movement of micro and nanoplastics inside the human body is incredibly difficult, the UTS research team created advanced computer models. These models meticulously replicate the complex structure and function of the respiratory system (nose, throat, lungs, etc.). By simulating how air and particles flow through these virtual lungs, the models provide valuable insights into:

  • Deposition patterns: Where the inhaled plastic particles are likely to become lodged within the respiratory system.
  • Factors influencing deposition: How characteristics like particle size, shape, and breathing patterns affect where the particles end up.

Breathing in plastics in air

The study revealed several important insights:

Breathing patterns play a role in plastic deposition

  • Fast breathing: When you breathe rapidly, air moves quickly through your nose and throat. This can cause larger plastic particles to get ‘caught’ in the upper respiratory tract, preventing them from going deeper into the lungs.
  • Slow breathing: Slower breathing allows smaller plastic particles, especially nanoplastics, more time to travel further into the respiratory system and potentially reach the delicate structures deep within the lungs.

Shape influences deposition

Plastic particles come in various shapes, not just spheres. Research suggests that irregularly shaped plastic fragments may be better at slipping past the body’s natural filtering mechanisms within the respiratory system. This could allow them to reach more sensitive areas deep in the lungs.

Accumulation hotspots

The computer models used in the study helped identify specific locations within the respiratory system where inhaled plastic particles are prone to accumulate. This is important because the buildup of plastic in these areas could eventually lead to health problems.

Potential health hazards of breathing plastic

Dr. Saha stresses that research is increasingly pointing towards a connection between breathing in plastic particles and a higher risk of various lung problems. Here’s a breakdown of the conditions mentioned:

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): A group of long-term lung diseases that make breathing difficult. COPD often includes emphysema (damaged air sacs in the lungs) and chronic bronchitis (long-term inflammation of the airways).

Asthma: A condition where the airways narrow and swell, leading to wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing.

Lung fibrosis: A condition where lung tissue becomes scarred and thickened, making breathing increasingly difficult.

Unexplained “frosted glass nodules”: These are abnormal spots seen on lung scans that resemble hazy ground glass. Their exact cause is often unclear, but they may indicate inflammation or early stages of lung disease.

Study significance

This study highlights the urgency of understanding the full extent of the health risks posed by breathing in microplastics and nanoplastics. While further research is critical, here’s what you can do now:

  • Increase Awareness: Educate yourself about the sources of these plastic particles in your daily life.
  • Advocate for Change: Support initiatives that promote reduction of plastic production and responsible waste management.
  • Demand Further Research: Urge investment in studies that will help us understand the long-term consequences of plastic inhalation and develop mitigation strategies.

These findings provide essential insights for the development of targeted strategies to mitigate potential risks and ensure effective health interventions. This knowledge is crucial to safeguarding our health and the well-being of our planet.

Small steps, like opting for reusable products and supporting sustainable practices, can collectively make a significant difference in protecting our lungs and the air we breathe.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Advances.


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