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Lungs: Do we really inhale microplastics?

Plastic microfibres originating from, for example, synthetic clothing, furniture and carpets, end up in the air. It has been estimated that for every 20 kilograms of household dust produced on average annually, about six kilograms are microplastics. Also, outdoor air consists of microplastics due, in part, to the wear and tear from car tires. The contribution of tire particles to airborne particulate matter (dust) is estimated to be between 3 and 7%, and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that particulate matter was responsible for 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2016.

What this means is that we breathe in microplastic particles every day, inhaling plastic into our lungs. Scientists investigating the lung tissue of cancer patients in the late 1990s, revealed the presence of microplastics in their lungs; they expressed their concern that plastic fibres could contribute to the risk of lung cancer. Research on occupational health problems in textile workers has also shed light on the potential health risks of microfibres. The processing of polyester and nylon fibres, for example, caused coughing, breathlessness and reduced lung capacity in employees from nylon flock plants in the US and Canada. Another study showed similar symptoms in Dutch workers, such as coughing, wheezing and increased mucus production. There was also evidence that workers may develop occupational asthma, or experience inflammation in the lungs due to the inhalation of these microplastics.

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The ongoing investigations
Are our lungs able to eliminate most of the plastic particles, or do they accumulate in lung tissue and cause damage? Or is it possible that the plastics we inhale spread to other parts of our bodies?

Researchers hope to unearth answers to these questions by fall of 2020. Three studies are looking into the repercussions of the inhalation of micro-and nanoplastics, and each has a unique research question:

  • Are microplastics, which have been exposed to exhaust gasses and cigarette smoke, more harmful to our lungs than microfibers that have not been exposed to these pollutants? (Prof. dr. Barbro Melgert and Dr. Fransien van Dijk – RUG)
  • How do our lungs respond to heavily weathered microplastics? (Dr. Ingeborg Kooter – TNO)
  • Can inhaled microplastics spread from the lungs to other parts of the body? (Dr. Bastien Venzac – UT)

These are the initial findings
At the Plastic Health Summit in October 2019, Dr. Fransien van Dijk presented preliminary results of her research. She and her colleagues grew two types of ‘mini-lungs’ and exposed these to nylon and polyester microfibres. According to Van Dijk, “If we add nylon microfibres, we see that there is an enormous decrease in the growth of the mini lungs. When we add polyester, we see a minimal effect.” This effect is especially true for the development of the airways, providing a first indication of the possible harmful role plastics play on human health.

The research group did not expect to discover such a clear effect of nylon microfibers on the exposed mini-lungs. They also studied how immune cells in our lungs reacted to nylon microfibres, and van Dijk shows video footage in which “you can clearly see that the [..] macrophages (immune cells) are hunting the [..] fibres”. They are continuing their research to unravel why nylon microfibers exert such a strong impact on the mini-lungs.

Watch Fransien van Dijk’s talk in which she presents her results during the 2019 Plastic Health Summit:

More results are expected for all projects by fall of 2020, so stay tuned!

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Field of research Lungs
Research period April 2019 – Fall 2020
Institutes involved University Groningen (RUG)
the Dutch Institute for Applied Scientific Research (TNO)
University Twente (UT)
Researchers involved Prof. dr. Barbro Melgert (RUG)
Dr. Fransien van Dijk (RUG)
Dr. Ingeborg Kooter (TNO)
Dr. Bastien Venzac (UT)