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“With each breath you are inhaling the microplastics that are in the air and they pass into the blood”

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Juan J. Garcia Vallejo is a man from Malaga who has spent 22 years researching in the Amsterdam WBU (University Medical Center) of the Netherlands. He is an immunologist and researcher trained at the Malaga University (UMA), a member of the team of scientists who have discovered the presence of microplastics in human blood. The consequences of this finding remain to be discovered.

QUESTION: We knew that microplastics had entered the food chain, it was a problem that had been known for a long time, why has it taken so long to show that they are already in our body?RESPONSE: Because determination techniques have not been available until very recently. In fact, one of the novel aspects of the work is not only the fact that we have detected microplastics in blood for the first time, but also the technique that we have used, it is novel, we have developed it in our laboratory.

Q. Does the determination technique refer to how to identify them?

R. Of course, this is the difficult aspect. The novel thing that we have done is to adapt a mass spectrometry technology for the quantification of microparticles, microplastics. At the chemical level, it is something that our colleagues appreciate and consider to be an interesting innovation. The fact that we have fine-tuned this technology to confirm as we expected that there were microplastics in the blood, is the effect that makes people curious.

Q. Four types of plastics that are widely used on a daily basis have been detected. Polyethylene terephthalate, polyethylene, styrene polymers (polystyrene, expanded polystyrene, acetonitrile butadiene styrene, etc.), and polymethyl methacrylate.

R. They are the plastics that are used for everything because our lives are surrounded by plastic. Look around you and in most of the things you have these plastics are in their composition. What causes those plastics to become microplastics? It is the passage of time, the effect of atmospheric factors, degradation by ultraviolet rays, fracturing due to changes in temperature… They behave exactly the same as other types of elements in the environment, with the drawback that plastics have a much longer degradation time than any biological product. These plastics end up breaking into smaller and smaller pieces and becoming microplastics. Microplastics are suspended in the air, in food, in plants… it has recently been shown that they are even in the soil and that plants can incorporate them through their roots. They are becoming, due to the amount of microplastics there are, we do not know if it is a health problem but certainly an environmental one.

Q. How do microplastics get into the bloodstream?

A. There are three routes of exposure. The airway, the microplastics that are suspended in the air, with each breath you are inhaling microplastics. The digestive route through water and food and skin and mucous membranes.

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P. Through these pathways do they reach the blood?

A. Sure. About three years ago at a congress in Switzerland a group of researchers said and found that there were microplastics in human feces. That was when my partner Heather [investigadora en el estudio] and I wrote the project called Inmunoplast, received funding and started this work. That was the justification we made at that time for which we thought that if the microplastics had been found in feces, it means that there was a possibility that they had passed into the internal environment. The way to determine it was with the blood. The result of this work indicates that this is indeed the case. The mechanism by which microplastics pass from the air, from our lungs to the blood, or from the digestive tract to the blood, is something we still do not know. We can speculate but we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that it happens.

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Q. It gives an average concentration of plastic particles of 1.6 micrograms per milliliter. Are they worrying or residual levels?

R. That they are worrying is one thing that is connected to toxicity. The toxicity we don’t know yet. We know that we have the exposure, now we have to determine the risk and the risk is the combination of exposure and toxicity. When we know that, we will be able to determine whether or not 1.6 micrograms per milliliter is an amount of concern. I personally would prefer not to have it, but I would have to go live on the moon, because I think it will be impossible to live without microplastics. If in the long run this is related to autoimmunity, cancer, allergy… it is something that we still do not have information about. But I believe that sooner rather than later, because there are many research groups working on this, we will know more and we will know which ones are potentially dangerous. And I am optimistic that when we know this we will have the possibility for the industry to change the way plastics are produced so that they are less toxic because our society is not going to do without plastic, this is how it is. We can reduce it, but we are not going to do without them.

A pioneering study on microplastics

Vallejo participated in the “Immunoplast” study together with researchers Heather A.Leslie, Martin JMvan Velzen, Sicco H.Brandsma, A. DickVethaak and Marja H.Lamoree. The research is funded by ZONMW, the Netherlands Organization for Health Research and Innovation in Care. The financing arrived in 2019 and the experiments were carried out for nine months, although the pandemic forced them to stop and delayed their publication. This is a pioneering study because it confirms that microplastics are already in the human body.

P. You raise questions about everything that remains to be found out and one of them is whether the presence of plastic could affect the immune system.

R. And if there is any effect on the body, it will not be the only one. We know that there are components in plastic, such as BPA (Bisphenol), a proestrogenic agent that is already found in detectable levels in the fetus and that has an effect on the endocrine system, on the development of individuals. I’m sure it also has neurological and immunological effects. And that is one of the thousands of chemical agents that are used in the synthesis of plastics. These agents are used to give the plastic its properties: hardness, malleability, resistance… what we have detected are the polymers with which the plastic is formed. The plastic is the polymer, that is, repetition of very small molecules and that is what makes up the structure of the plastic. BPA has been known for a long time that it is toxic and now it is prohibited to use it but other things are used like BPB and PCB and that is less known what its effects are, but they are sister molecules of BPA.

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P. You refer to other studies that show that the placenta can be a transmitter of microplastics, could children be born today with the presence of microplastics in the body?

A. I don’t really have the information to say that categorically. In my research group we have another collaborator who is studying the presence of microplastics in the placenta and has determined that there are microplastics in the placenta, which does not surprise me because it may simply indicate that the mother’s blood, having microplastics and bathing the placenta, part of the microplastics are deposited in the placenta, but that does not mean that they are in the baby. The placenta is an organ that connects the mother’s blood so that the nutrients pass into the baby’s blood, but the mother’s and baby’s blood are not in contact, the fact that microplastics have been found in the placenta, it does not indicate that they are in the baby. You have to be very cautious with this issue and not alarm.

Q. The study has 22 volunteers, healthy people and randomly chosen. This results in the idea that beyond the fact that there may be more exposed people, the condition is general, right?

R. It is that they are in the air we breathe. Obviously a person who works in a factory of polyester T-shirts, a plastic polymer and it is one of the components that we have found in the blood, we know that they are going to have greater exposure and we think that part of the occupational pathology at the respiratory level is related with the microplastics they inhale. One of the projects that we are developing now, financed at European level, is to measure the amount of microplastics in workers at a textile factory in Romania who work with this type of material. We are going to have two types of information, one, the amount of microplastics and two, how your immune system works. I hope to see what the direct effects of microplastics are on the immune system, because we can establish a correlation between the amount of microplastics and immunity.

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Environment section contact: crisisclimatica@prensaiberica.es

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