Plastics: Plastics have become a common part of our daily lives, but there are increasing concerns about their potential impact on health. One of the main issues is the presence of tiny particles called micro-plastics and even smaller ones called nano-plastics (1). These tiny plastic particles can come from contaminated plastic water bottles or from the environment via inhalation, the digestive tract via consumption or through skin via cosmetics. Once inside the body, there are concerns about these tiny plastics causing inflammation, affecting the immune system, and potentially leading to several health issues. In 2019 the World Health Organisation (WHO) called for more research related to microplastics in drinking water and in the environment, and their potential impacts on human health.

Plastic in the environment: Plastic pollution poses a significant threat to our environment and health. Millions of tons of plastic waste ends up in landfills, oceans and rivers, every year, contaminating our water and food sources. Plastics take hundreds of years to break down, leading to long-lasting environmental damage. Additionally, the presence of plastic particles in our water and food supply can lead to various health issues. Addressing plastic pollution is crucial not only for the health of our planet but also for safeguarding human health.

Plastic bottled water: Identifying micro- and nano-plastics is really challenging due to their size and the need for precise detection methods. A research article published in January 2024, reported that the amount of microplastics present in bottled water were alarmingly higher than previously believed. In just 1 litre of bottled water, there are 100,000 pieces of micro- and nano-plastics (2). These were identified due to the use of an advanced optical imaging technique capable of quickly and accurately analysing nano-plastics with high sensitivity and specificity. Some plastic bottles also contain harmful chemicals like BPA, DEHP and phthalates, which can leach into the water; these chemicals are known to cause health issues.

It’s believed there are thousands to hundred of thousands microplastics in plastic bottles. Photo: AAP/University of Queensland

What does the research say: A study from Duke University School of Medicine, published a research paper linking Parkinson’s disease and other types of dementia with nano-plastics. These nano-plastics can boost the formation and spread of harmful protein clumps in the brain. In mice, nano-plastics worsened the spread of these proteins linked to Parkinson’s disease, suggesting a potential connection between nano-plastics and neurodegenerative conditions (3). In March 2024, a research study showed a connection between micro-plastics and cardiovascular health. The study showed that almost 60 per cent of individuals undergoing surgery had micro-plastics and nano-plastics in a major artery. These individuals were 4.5 times more likely to suffer from a stroke, heart attack, or death within 34 months post-surgery compared to those without plastic in their arteries (4). In another study published a few weeks ago, it was found that micro-plastic particles were taken up by cancer cells in lab cultures, and once inside the cells, the micro-particles were passed on to newly divided cells. Short exposure to these micro-plastics increased cell movement, suggesting the potential of increased cancer spread (5). Further, micro-plastics have been detected in human placentas suggestive of potential exposure of the developing foetus and newborn baby to micro- and nano-plastics.

Summary: Plastic build-up in our bodies can cause various health problems. While the adverse effects of microplastics are becoming increasingly evident, comprehensive studies are still required to fully grasp their impact on human health. By recognising the health risks associated with plastic exposure and taking proactive measures to minimise it, individuals can make informed decisions that benefit both personal health and the environment

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