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There might be plastics inside you right now

Published Aug 18th, 2020 10:56AM EDT
Image: vladimirzuev/Adobe

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  • Researchers have found evidence of microplastics in human body tissue for the first time.
  • Using a new technique, scientists sampled 47 pieces of organ tissue from human donors and found microplastics present in every single sample.
  • The researchers hope to draw links between diets, jobs, and locations in order to see who is most at risk for high levels of microplastics in their bodies.

Plastic is both an incredible modern convenience and an environmental nightmare. Most plastics are very durable and last for a very, very long time, even in the most extreme environmental conditions, making them the worst kind of material to be floating around the ocean or washing up on pristine beaches.

Even worse, as plastics break down, they become tinier and tinier, and microplastics have been found all over the Earth in startling quantities. These tiny bits of plastic can cause serious harm to wildlife when ingested, and a new research effort aims to discover just how much plastic has already invaded the average human body.

Microplastics are incredibly tiny — as the name would suggest — and when animals like fish consume them, the material can become embedded in their organs. Those fish get eaten by bigger fish and eventually the plastics move all the way up the food chain and end up on your dinner plate.

The researchers, who presented their work at a meeting of the American Chemical Society this week, developed a technique that allows them to detect plastics in human organs. A relatively small-scale test of approximately 50 human organ samples was conducted using kidney, liver, lung, and other human tissue.

The results were incredibly troubling. The researchers found microplastics in every single sample they tested. This is terrible news, but not entirely unexpected, as scientists have long been warning of the likelihood of microplastics invading our bodies for years. Developing a reliable way to detect these plastics in human tissue took some time, but the findings, while shocking to the rest of us, weren’t a surprise to scientists.

“We never want to be alarmist, but it is concerning that these non-biodegradable materials that are present everywhere [may] enter and accumulate in human tissues, and we don’t know the possible health effects,”  Varun Kelkar, one of the researchers involved in the work, said. “Once we get a better idea of what’s in the tissues, we can conduct epidemiological studies to assess human health outcomes. That way, we can start to understand the potential health risks, if any.”

Going forward, the researchers are hoping to compare the levels of microplastics in the tissues of donors with information about their lives, which is typically collected along with the tissue itself. The scientists hope to draw some links between certain activities, foods, and even jobs and the prevalence of microplastics in each person’s tissue.

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