Microplastics found for the first time in living human lung tissue

From the top of the highest mountain to the depths of the ocean floor, our planet is now pretty much covered in a thin layer of plastic. Tiny fragments of the substance are plentiful in the water we drink, the spices we use to flavor our food, and the air we breathe. They have even been found in our blood.

That makes it a little less surprising — but no less worrisome — that a new study, due to be published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, has found microplastic pollution deep in the lung tissue of living humans for the first time.

“Microplastics have previously been found in autopsy specimens from human cadavers,” lead author Laura Sadofsky, senior lecturer in respiratory medicine at Hull York Medical School, said in a statement. “[T]This is the first robust study showing microplastics in the lungs of living humans.”

The research used lung tissue samples from living patients who had undergone surgery as part of their routine care – although surgeons at nearby Castle Hill Hospital in East Yorkshire made sure they sent the team healthy samples rather than the actual bits patients went down the knife for.

Out of 13 lung samples, a staggering 11 contained microplastics, with the most common types being bits of PET used to make beverage bottles; Polypropylene used for plastic packaging and pipes; and resin, which is often used as an adhesive or sealant.

“We didn’t expect to find the highest number of particles in the lower regions of the lungs or particles of the size we found,” Sadofsky said.

“It’s surprising because the airways are smaller in the lower parts of the lungs and we would have expected particles of this size to be filtered out or trapped before they penetrate so deep.”

Interestingly, the only samples that escaped microplastic infiltration were from female donors. The team thinks this could be due to men having larger lungs and therefore larger airways – but given the small size of the study, they say more research is needed before they can draw firm conclusions.

And with their study now pending publication, those future studies should now be possible. People are bombarded with microplastics almost every day of their lives – possibly even before they are born – but the effects of this constant exposure are not yet known in detail. With their new article, however, Sadofsky and her colleagues have presented more than just a worrying indictment of ubiquitous microplastic pollution—they have taken an important first step in understanding what all this plastic pollution is doing to the world.

“These data represent important advances in the fields of air pollution, microplastics and human health,” said Sadofsky.

“The characterization of types and amounts of microplastics that we found can now provide realistic conditions for laboratory exposure experiments aimed at determining health effects.”

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