Plastic is one of the most used materials by society and a significant part of the waste from these polymers is not recycled, nor does it have a correct destination after use. When discarded improperly, in the process of degradation, the plastic releases submillimeter fragments, called microplastics. These particles raise concerns about their effects both on the environment and on human and animal organisms. Now, researchers at the University of São Paulo (FM-USP) have identified tiny plastic particles in the human lung.
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In the study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, the researchers analyzed samples of 20 lung tissues, obtained through an autopsy. Of the total of analyses, 13 of them contained microplastic residues. According to the researchers, it was possible to identify the presence of polymer particles smaller than 5.5 micrometers (µm, the thousandth part of a millimeter), in addition to fibers ranging between 8.12 µm and 16.8 µm. In the samples analyzed, the most frequently found polymers were polyethylene (known as common plastic, made of bags and films) and polypropylene (used in packaging, bags, toys and electronics).
National research finds microplastics in the human lung (Image: Reproduction/Lourenço et al., 2021/Journal of Hazardous Materials)
The microplastics were quantified and characterized by the researchers using Raman spectroscopy. It is a photonic technique, with high resolution, which can provide, in a few seconds, chemical and structural information of almost any material.
Consequences of microplastics in the lungs
“Microplastics are present in the air and can be inhaled by humans, but it is not yet known whether they have deleterious effects on the respiratory system,” the study authors write in the article. Now, this new evidence should pave the way for further investigations in the area. Also, because the contamination of the lungs occurred through the inhalation of microplastics.
“The topic of microplastics and human health is still extremely recent. With the results, showing that different types of microplastics reach the human respiratory system, researchers will be able to elucidate the potential adverse effects of these compounds on health. This is precisely the next step in our research at FM-USP”, explains the researcher from the Department of Pathology at FM-USP, Luís Fernando Amato Lourenço, to the University’s Communication Department.
Funded by FAPESP, the pioneering research was developed by groups from the Institute of Chemistry and the Institute of Technological Research at USP, in partnership with a team from the Faculty of Medicine (FM-USP) coordinated by professor Thais Mauad. In addition, the project is part of FAPESP’s São Paulo Researchers in International Collaboration (SPRINT) Program, in cooperation with the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands.
To access the full article on the presence of microplastics in the lung, published in the journal Journal of Hazardous Materials, click here.