Scientists are increasingly concerned that breathing in tiny particles from car tyres, clothing and bedding could be a major health hazard.
Experts have suggested ‘we don’t have time to wait’ to find out if inhaling micro and nanoplastics is damaging our lungs, as calls grow for urgent research to be undertaken. Speaking exclusively to Metro.co.uk, academics have warned that it would be ‘foolish to assume’ inhaling the particles will not harm humans, branding it the ‘million dollar question’.
The tiny fragments come from various plastic objects in everyday life – including curtains, carpets, rubber fragments from tyres and numerous other synthetic items – and could be linked to numerous health issues, particularly around the lungs.
Results from one study on the issue are due later this year, but will only offer limited answers, experts desperately calling for more research say.
Dr Matthew Cole, one of the academics involved, explained that the particles ‘might cause inflammation or tissue damage’, adding that they could also pose an increased risk for people with underlying respiratory problems.
Dr Cole, a marine biologist who has been looking into microplastics for a decade, added that ‘very, very little’ is known about how microplastics interact with the human body, and that there were problems in telling the difference between the impact of plastic that had been inhaled and ingested.
But, he said, inhalation is ‘likely to be much higher’, highlighting a study showing that household dust dropping on to a plate at dinner time exposed people to far more plastic particles than the contaminated seafood meal being eaten.
Researchers are looking into whether plastic particles accumulate in lung tissue and cause damage and whether they could be responsible for further illnesses throughout the body – but have not ruled out it having no impact at all.
A lead researcher in the same study, Professor Dr Barbro Melgert told Metro.co.uk that it is ‘conceivable’ that homes collect around 6kg of microplastic dust which can reach human airways and airsacs every year.
Asked whether they are dangerous, she said: ‘(That is) the million dollar question.
‘Based on our results using cultures of minilungs (organoids), these fibres and the stuff leaking from them inhibit lung growth.
‘However, we do not know if the numbers of fibres we use for our minilungs reflect what we breathe in – that needs urgent investigations.’
Yet Matthew Shribman – a scientist and environmental campaigner who is taking his ‘Plastic in the Air’ film about the issue to schools and universities around the world – brands himself ‘increasingly worried that we don’t have time to wait’ to find out.
Suggesting ‘we are all breathing in nanoparticles of plastic, which can cross into our bloodstream’, he said: ‘We don’t know for certain that this is bad for humans, but based on the known toxicity and carcinogenic properties of many plastics, it would be foolish to assume it’s safe.’
He also urged a move away from recycling plastic to avoiding it all together, highlighting the mass plastic pollution in the oceans, which has helped pushed environmental concerns dramatically up the political agenda in recent times.
There are already major concerns about breathing in general air pollution, which the leader of the World Health Organisation told Metro.co.uk was like ‘drinking dirty water’.
Professor Melgert believes the most dangerous particles in pollution, PM2.5, could be partly made up of microplastics ‘with all sorts of pollutants adsorbed onto them’.
She added: ‘I would say we should be concerned and start taking this potential problem seriously by doing more focused studies and limit our use of, at the very least, disposable plastics.’
Previous research has explored the impact of ingesting plastic through eating and drinking, with studies suggesting other animals face major health issues as a result.
There has been limited clear evidence to suggest plastic is harmful to humans, and our lungs are likely to filter out large particles, but concerns centre around smaller fragments.
Dr Melanie Bergmann said there is also some evidence that minuscule plastic fragments can make it into the lymph nodes.
Admitting that much of the concern is just ‘speculation at the moment’ and urging more research, she continued: ‘The question is how much plastic passes through the gastro intestinal system.
‘This research is not being done. There is so much research on animals and hardly anything on humans.
‘It’s a question of big societal relevance that is not being addressed right now.’
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