Rising global levels of micro- and nanoplastics could exacerbate risks of chronic lung disease, cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, according to new research.

RT’s Three Key Takeaways:

  1. Increased Disease Risk: The study links rising global levels of micro- and nanoplastics (MnPs) in the human body to an increased risk of chronic lung disease, cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
  2. Higher Exposure in Infants: MnP concentrations in infant fecal matter are significantly higher than in adults, potentially due to plastic use in infant food preparation and behaviors such as putting objects in their mouths.
  3. Call for Integrated Research: Researchers are advocating for a global integrated One Health approach to understand the environmental mechanisms behind human MnP exposure and its connection to non-communicable diseases.

People may be at increased risk for chronic lung disease, cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease as rising global levels of micro- and nanoplastics (MnPs) are absorbed into the human body, a new study reveals.

Non-communicable diseases such as these are linked to inflammatory conditions in the body’s organs, with the tiny particles increasing the uptake of MnPs and their leachates within digestive and respiratory systems—potentially boosting the risk and severity of non-communicable diseases in the future.

And MnP concentrations in infant fecal matter are significantly higher than in adults—possibly because plastic is commonly used in infant food preparation, presentation, and storage. Young children’s behavior such as putting objects in their mouth may also account for this.

Call for Global Integrated Research

Publishing their findings in Cell Reports Medicine, an international group of researchers is now calling for a global integrated One Health approach to human health and environmental research that will reveal the environmental mechanisms that lie behind the rise in human MnP exposure and the particles links with non-communicable diseases.

“Plastic pollution has increased globally—making it critical that we understand the overall health risks associated with MnP exposure,” says lead author professor Stefan Krause, PhD, from the University of Birmingham, in a release. “We must tackle this pollution at its source to reduce further emissions, as the global dispersal of MnPs that has already happened will remain a cause of concern for centuries to come. For this, we need a systematic investigation into the environmental drivers of human MnP exposure and their impacts on the prevalence and severity of the main [non-communicable diseases] groups of cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and chronic lung disease.”

Similarities to Other Pollutants

The researchers highlight that the relationship between MnPs and non-communicable diseases resembles those of other particles, including natural sources such as pollen or human-made pollutants like diesel exhaust, and MnPs, and engineered nanomaterials, all acting in a similar biological manner. 

Human exposure rates are determined by the environmental fate and transport of MnPs that control the connectivity between spatially and temporally dynamic environmental pollution sources and human exposures (bottom). Together, these dynamic exposure controls determine the combined uptake of MnPs and their additives that may influence the risk and/or severity of NCDs. The text boxes provide some example exposure ranges associated with different MnP sources. Photo credit: University of Birmingham

The body treats these as foreign entities triggering the same protective mechanisms—presenting a risk of bodily defenses becoming overwhelmed and boosting the frequency and severity of non-communicable diseases.

Rising Global Impact of Non-Communicable Diseases

The incidence of non-communicable diseases is increasing across the world with the four main types collectively responsible for 71% of all global deaths annually and creating a predicted economic impact of more than $30 trillion over the next two decades.

“We must better understand how MnPs and non-communicable diseases interact if we are to progress global prevention and treatment efforts toward the UN Sustainable Development Goal on reducing premature mortality from non-communicable diseases and other conditions where inflammation are concerned through by 2030,” says co-author Semira Manaseki-Holland, PhD, from the University of Birmingham, in a release. “This need is critical in low- and low-middle-income countries where [non-communicable diseases] prevalence is rising, and plastic pollution levels and exposures are high. Whether we encounter them indoors or outdoors, MnPs are likely adding to global health risks.”

Ubiquity of Microplastics in the Environment

Global pollution trends show that micro- (smaller than 5 mm) and nanoplastic (smaller than 1 µm) particles are now found everywhere. MnPs have been detected in lungs, blood, breast milk, placenta, and stool samples confirming that the particles enter the human body from the environment.

Humans are exposed to MnPs in outdoor and indoor environments through food stuffs, drinks consumption, air, and many other sources including cosmetics and human care products.

MnPs have been found in fish, salt, beer, and plastic-bottled drinks or air, where they are released from synthetic clothing materials, plastic fabric bedding during sleep, plastic carpet or furniture. Other sources can include fertilizer, soil, irrigation, and uptake into food crops or produce.

Variability in Human Exposure

Human exposure to MnPs varies significantly depending on location and exposure mechanism, with evidence of MnP pollution hotspots in indoor air containing up to 50 times the number of particles encountered outdoors.
“We must understand the human health risks associated with MnPs, and to do this, we will need to understand the environmental controls of individual exposures,” says co-author professor Iseult Lynch, PhD, from the University of Birmingham, in a release. “This will require environmental and medical scientists to work very closely together.”

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