New Study Shows ‘Robust’ Evidence of Microplastics in People’s Lungs

In a new study published in the journal Science of The Total Environment, researchers have outlined the first-ever “robust” evidence of microplastics in people’s live lung tissues.

A team of researchers at Hull York Medical School at the University of Hull in the U.K. has published a new study in Science of The Total Environment that describes—for the first time—“robust” evidence of microplastics in the live tissues of human lungs. The researchers specifically looked at whether or not people breathe in airborne microplastics from the environment, and found inhalation does indeed occur. And perhaps quite often.

“Airborne microplastics (MPs) have been sampled globally, and their concentration is known to increase in areas of high human population and activity, especially indoors,” the researchers write in their study. “It remains to be seen whether MPs from the environment can be inhaled, deposited and accumulated within the human lungs,” the authors add, stating their goal with the study was to analyze “digested human lung tissue samples” to characterize any present MPs. The researchers, incidentally, collected their lung tissues from 11 thoracic surgery patients at the University’s teaching hospital.

“Microplastics have previously been found in human cadaver autopsy samples [but] this is the first robust study to show microplastics in lungs from live people,” Dr. Laura Sadofsky, Senior Lecturer in Respiratory Medicine at Hull York Medical School and co-lead author of the paper said in a press release. “It also shows that [microplastics] are in the lower parts of the lung,” Sadofsky added. “Lung airways are very narrow so no one thought they could possibly get there, but they clearly have.”

“We found a far greater number of microplastic particles than we were expecting,” Lauren Jenner, a postgraduate researcher at the Hull York Medical School and co-lead author of the study, reported in the press release. “This study underlines that microplastics are everywhere.”

Amongst the Microplastics Sadofsky et al. detected, there were 12 distinct types; many of which the researchers say are commonly found in packaging, bottles, clothing, rope/twine, and many types of manufacturing processes. There were also considerably higher levels of microplastics in male patients compared to females, the researchers report.  

In the image at top, the researchers show images of microplastics identified from human lung tissue samples; note only the samples from A, B, C, and D are examples of individual pieces of microplastic in live human lung tissue. The photos marked E and F are from blank slides for reference. In the image immediately above, the researchers show the distributions of the microplastics in different parts of the lung.

“We did not expect to find the highest number of particles in the lower regions of the lungs, or particles of the sizes we found,” Sadofsky added in the press release. “This is surprising as the airways are smaller in the lower parts of the lungs, and we would have expected particles of these sizes to be filtered out or trapped before getting this deep into the lungs.” 

The University’s press release notes the most abundant microplastics the researchers found in the lung tissues are generally associated with tire rubber, degraded cement, plastic bags, and clothes. A list that serves as a good reminder that as we mold the environment the environment, in turn, molds us.

Feature image: Lauren C. Jenner et al., Science of The Total Environment

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