top of page
  • Writer's pictureTriple Helix

Microplastics: New Findings & its Effects


Writer: Josue Navarro ‘25

Editor: El Hebert ‘24


You’ve probably heard of microplastics at some point in your life. Whether you’ve seen them on the news or heard about them in passing from a friend, you might have wondered about the concerns surrounding microplastics. But let’s backtrack, what are microplastics? Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic of about five millimeters [2]. They come about from the breakdown of larger plastic products, and in recent years, microplastics have been found everywhere—in our food, our bodies, and our surrounding environments [2]. In 2018, the United States generated about 35.7 million tons of plastic [3]. And with about half of plastic being used once and then discarded, the production of plastic has rapidly increased since the 1970s [3]. From containers, bottles, and wrappers to cleaning supplies and tires, plastic is seen in our everyday lives. Though microplastics are small, research suggests that they can cause harm over time. 


Microplastics have been associated with the activation of endocrine disruptors, which is caused by the body’s absorption of pollutants [4]. But more recently, a study showed a link between microplastics and heart attacks and strokes in patients who were treated for asymptomatic carotid artery plaques [5]. These patients underwent a carotid endarterectomy, where the fatty deposits were removed from the carotid artery. These fatty deposits were analyzed for microplastics, using mass spectrometry to determine their composition, and electron microscopy to obtain images of their structure [5]. In addition, the plaques were examined for different inflammatory markers to determine whether the plaques were under immune attack. Researchers found polyethylene in the plaques of 58.4% of the patients (304 total) in the study [5]. They also found that patients with plaques containing microplastics had a higher risk of having myocardial infarction, stroke, or death [5]. These findings suggest that microplastics can cause serious harm to humans overtime, but the researchers emphasized the importance of longer studies, as information and data to concretely prove that such long-term effects in humans are lacking [5]. However, this information does raise concerns about the long-term effects of microplastics on growth and development, specifically its effects on minority and low-income communities.


Minority and low-income communities typically live close to waste sites and polluted waterways, which are particularly affected by microplastics [6]. Toxic chemicals—byproducts of the creation and decomposition of microplastics—were found circulating in waters within these areas at higher rates than in other communities. To make matters worse, these communities lack the infrastructure to avoid the high amounts of plastic pollution within them [6]. Single-use items tend to be a lot less expensive, which means that these communities will use more plastic in order to meet their needs. And though landfills and recycling centers exist, they may not be as accessible (in terms of distance and time) to these folks, who may be working several jobs to make ends meet. Additionally, low-income and minority communities may not be able to access medical and preventative care to treat the health consequences of microplastics. It is important to consider these communities when evaluating the effects of microplastics.


With this in mind, are microplastics something we should be concerned about? The short answer: it’s complicated. There are a lot of confounding factors that need to be analyzed by researchers to get a complete picture of what is going on. However, preliminary studies like the one done by Lee et al. begin to give us an idea of the effects that microplastics are beginning to have on the human population. 


For many years, we’ve known about plastics harming ocean life and plants, but it takes a real-life lesson to learn the extent of the effects of microplastics in our environment and bring about change. Since it has begun to affect humans in terms of organ health, it will not be long until we see a real push for a decrease in the use of plastic. However, solutions to this issue are incredibly complex, and though there is not a one-size-fits-all approach, monitoring the situation through multi-year studies and follow ups are imperative to understanding the consequences of our current way of life.





Citations

  1. Wade G. Microplastics Linked to a Greater Risk of Heart Attack and Stroke [Internet]. NewScientist. 2024 [cited 2024 Mar 14]. Available from: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2420674-microplastics-linked-to-a-greater-risk-of-heart-attack-and-stroke/

  2. EHN Curators. A New Film at SXSW Raises Alarms about Microplastics’ Dangers - EHN [Internet]. www.nytimes.com. 2024 [cited 2024 Mar 14]. Available from: https://www.ehn.org/a-new-film-at-sxsw-raises-alarms-about-microplastics-dangers-2667478786.html#:~:text=Microplastics%2C%20tiny%20particles%20less%20than.

  3. US EPA O. Plastics: Material-Specific Data [Internet]. United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2017 [cited 2024 Mar 14]. Available from: https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/plastics-material-specific-data#:~:text=In%202018%2C%20plastics%20generation%20was

  4. Lee Y, Cho J, Sohn J, Kim C. Health Effects of Microplastic Exposures: Current Issues and Perspectives in South Korea. Yonsei Medical Journal [Internet]. 2023 Apr 20 [cited 2024 Mar 14];64(5):301–1. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10151227/#B19

  5. Raffaele Marfella, Prattichizzo F, Celestino Sardu, Fulgenzi G, Graciotti L, Spadoni T, et al. Microplastics and Nanoplastics in Atheromas and Cardiovascular Events. The New England Journal of Medicine. 2024 Mar 7;390(10):900–10.

  6. Torrey M, Truncer J. How Single-Use Plastic Waste in Freshwater Sources causes Ingestion of Microplastics and its Disproportionate Effects on Vulnerable Communities [Internet]. 2022 Sep [cited 2024 Mar 14]. Available from: https://meitorrey.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/mei-torrey-research-paper.pdf

1 view0 comments

Kommentare


bottom of page