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Health and Pollution: Microplastics can damage the lungs

Updated: Aug 3, 2021

A team of researchers from Florida State University has found that exposure to microplastics, even for a few days, can lead to slowed metabolism and growth of lung cells.

Microplastic pollution is now considered one of the biggest environmental problems. The very small size of these contaminants, together with a surprising diffusion, make them a growing threat to natural ecosystems. But the relatively recent discovery of their massive presence and the little information accumulated in the field makes them an almost unknown opponent. Little is known about the effects on human health, although their presence in the food chain is now certain.

Research from Florida State University is now shedding new light on the problem. Here a team of scientists explored the kind of damage that plastic microparticles can cause lung, publishing the results of Chemical Research in Toxicology.

The research team’s goal was to evaluate the cellular effects associated with inhaling and ingesting these plastic fragments. “Plastics are very useful materials for everyday life. They are indispensable,” said FSU chemistry and biochemistry professor Qing-Xiang Sang. “But as human beings, we want to live a healthy life; so we have to think of ways to minimize the potential negative effects of plastics”.

The researchers found that exposure to microplastics, even for just a few days, although it does not cause cell death, can produce important alterations.

In detail, the scientists focused their efforts on polystyrene, a material widely used in disposable items due to its robustness. “But the very feature that makes it useful also makes it persist in the environment,” said researcher Joan Hare. “And when we discard these objects, they spread in the ground and the air”.

The team exposed lung cells in a petri dish to small amounts of polystyrene at levels commonly found in the environment. After only a few days, they were able to assess how the cell’s metabolic processes were slowed down, cell proliferation inhibited, the cell shape changed, leading to disaggregation between individual units.

Furthermore, the team found that the absorbed microplastics form a ring around the core. “Microplastics did not kill the cells, but the latter certainly did not act normally.”

The team said the study offers a first step in understanding the effects of microplastics on human health. The findings supported previously raised concerns for people with respiratory disorders such as lung cancer, asthma, emphysema, pneumonia, fibrosis or Bronchopneumopathy Chronic obstructive (COPD).


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