New evidence indicates that tiny bits of plastics can reach our bloodstream. A small study detected microplastics in about 80% of the people tested. For now, the health implications of this exposure are still unclear.
The findings were first reported by the Guardian and published in the journal Environment International. Researchers examined blood samples of 22 healthy adults and found traces of plastic in 17 of them. The plastics included those commonly used in bottles, food packaging, and plastic bags.
These tiny bits of plastics are ubiquitous in our environment, having been documented just about everywhere in the world. Other research has suggested that they’re routinely ingested and subsequently pass through our digestive system, ending up in our poop. But the researchers say their work is the first to show that some plastics can then find their way into the circulatory system, in theory allowing them to travel widely inside our bodies.
“Our study is the first indication that we have polymer particles in our blood—it’s a breakthrough result,” study author Dick Vethaak, an ecotoxicologist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands, told the Guardian. “It is certainly reasonable to be concerned.”
Scientists have increasingly raised the alarm around the potential health impacts of microplastics, both for humans and wildlife. These plastics can contain chemicals known to mimic our natural hormones, which may be even more harmful or disruptive for children. The accumulation of plastics, some studies have suggested, may also be capable of damaging human cells directly. In 2020, a large report penned by environmental and hormone researchers declared plastics to be a global health threat.
At the same time, the researchers caution that these findings are based on a very small sample size, though they say other research teams are already planning larger studies to confirm the results. There was also wide variation in how much plastic could be found in people’s blood. And while some studies have found a link between plastic exposure and various conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer, the exact level of harm posed by plastics is still far from established.