General Studies IIIEnvironment and Ecology

Microplastics in Human Blood


Tiny particles of plastics, called Microplastics, were detected in human blood for the first time, according to a study by a group of researchers in the Netherlands.

What are Microplastics?

  • About:
    • They are defined as plastics less than five millimeters in diameter—smaller in diameter than the standard pearl used in jewelry. It can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life.
    • There are two categories of microplastics: primary and secondary.
  • Classification:
    • Primary Microplastics: They are tiny particles designed for commercial use and microfibers shed from clothing and other textiles.
      • E.g. Microbeads found in personal care products, plastic pellets and plastic fibres.
    • Secondary Microplastics: They are formed from the breakdown of larger plastics such as water bottles.
      • This breakdown is caused by exposure to environmental factors, mainly the sun’s radiation and ocean waves.
  • Sources of Microplastics:
    • Marine Environment 
    • Oxidation tank and sewage sludge
    • Cosmetics and make-up
    • Clothes and synthetic materials
    • Mobility and tyres
    • Navigation and fishing

Key Findings

  • Type of plastic:
    • About half of these were PET (polyethylene tertraphthalate) plastics, which is used to make food grade bottles. 
  • Size: 
    • The size of the particles that the group looked for was as small as about 700 nanometres (equal to 0.0007 millimetres). 
    • This is really small and it remains to be seen if there is a danger of such particles crossing the blood cell walls and affecting the organs. 
  • Plastics looked for in blood samples:
    • The study looked at the most commonly used plastic polymers. These were:
      • polyethylene terephthalate (PET), 
      • polyethylene (used in making plastic carry bags), 
      • polymers of styrene (used in food packaging), 
      • poly (methyl methylacrylate) and 
      • polypropylene. 
    • They found a presence of the first four types.
  • Key results:
    • 77% of tested people (17 of the 22 persons) carried various amounts of microplastics above the limit of quantification. 
    • In 50% of the samples, the researchers detected PET particles. 
    • In 36%, they found the presence of polystyrene. 
    • 23% of polyethylene and 5% of poly(methyl methylacrylate) were also found. 
    • However, traces of poly propylene were not detected.
    • They found in each donor, on average, 1.6 microgram of plastic particles per millilitre of blood sample. 

Concerns related to Microplastics

  • It is not yet clear if these microplastics can cross over from the bloodstream to deposit in organs and cause diseases. 
  • The human placenta has shown to be permeable to tiny particles of polystyrene ( 50, 80 and 24 nanometre beads). 
  • Experiments on rats where its lungs were exposed to polystryrene spheres (20 nanometre) led to translocation of the nanoparticles to the placental and foetal tissue. 
  • Microplastics cause damage to human cells in the laboratory and air pollution particles are already known to enter the body and cause millions of early deaths a year.

Initiatives to Tackle Microplastics

  • Elimination of Single Use Plastic: In 2019, the Prime Minister of India pledged to eliminate all single-use plastic in the country by 2022, with an immediate ban in urban Delhi.
  • Important Rules: Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 state that every local body has to be responsible for setting up infrastructure for segregation, collection, processing, and disposal of plastic waste.
    • Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules 2018 introduced the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).
  • Un-Plastic Collective: Un-Plastic Collective (UPC) is a voluntary initiative launched by the UNEP-India, Confederation of Indian Industry and WWF-India.
    • The Collective seeks to minimise externalities of plastics on the ecological and social health of our planet.
  • Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML): The GMPL was launched at the Earth Summit in 2012 in response to a request set out in the Manila Declaration.
  • London Convention, 1972: The 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping Wastes and Other Matter was signed to control all sources of marine pollution and prevent pollution of the sea through regulation of dumping into the sea of waste materials.
  • Plastic Pacts: The Plastics Pacts are business-led initiatives to transform the plastics packaging value chain for all formats and products.

Way Forward

  • Combination of Degradation Mechanisms: A combination of photo and biological degradation systems for effective and complete decomposition of microplastics has been suggested.
  • International Collaboration: Plastic waste around the world demands a new global treaty modelled on the Montreal Protocol and the Paris Agreement.
    • The global problem of plastics will only be solved if all countries and decision-making policies decide to monitor microplastics along their respective coasts and also implement orders to use only biodegradable plastics.
  • Reducing Plastic Consumption: Plastic consumption can be reduced to ensure the reduction in the level of microplastic pollution.
    • Government, industry and the community shall work together to significantly reduce the amount of litter seen along beaches and in oceans.
    • Personal initiatives such as zero-waste trips, shunning disposable and using own utensils, quitting the use of bottled water and giving up plastic packaging are some of the steps that every citizen can take to curb microplastic pollution.
  • Economic Support for Recycling Projects: The economical support including tax rebates, R&D funds, technology incubation, Public-Private Partnerships and support to projects that recycle single-use items and turn waste into a resource can be enforced.

Source: The Hindu/ NASA

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