Scientists are one step closer to understanding the true dangers of plastics and the extent of nanoplastic infiltration into the human body following the development of a specialized laboratory at the University of Queensland (UQ). This is a major step forward for scientists who are trying to determine which parts of the body, including the brain, have been penetrated by plastics and what their consequences could be.
A recent study on nanoplastics published in the National Library of Medicine in April 2022 defined the particles as “synthetic polymers with dimensions ranging from 1 nm to 1 μm.” These particles can be found in the environment due to direct release or plastic disintegration.
In an email to The Epoch Times, the director of UQ’s Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences, Prof. Kevin Thomas, said that humans are exposed to plastics through the air they breathe and the food and drink they consume. “Examining blood tells us whether (or not) the plastics that we are exposed to can cross into the body. This is the first step in understanding the consequence of being exposed to plastic particles,” Thomas said. “Testing urine tells us whether these plastics can be excreted via urine. Our focus on the brain comes after understanding whether they are in blood or not, and this is to understand whether they have the potential to cross the blood-brain barrier.”
Prof. Thomas noted that determining whether plastic particles have crossed membranes is the initial stage in deciding to ask what the impact of their presence is. “The body may be able to deal with it, or there may be mechanisms that occur that may start some sort of adverse outcome,” he said. “This is generally unknown, but inflammation is the most likely theoretical effect of nanoplastics should they enter the body.”
The lab at the Minderoo Centre—a partnership between UQ and mining billionaire Andrew Forrest’s philanthropic Minderoo Foundation—offers a solution to the scientists’ search for plastic nanoparticles within the human body. The lab is nearly entirely made of stainless steel, with plastic excluded to the greatest extent possible, and is also contamination-controlled and airlock-protected, making it capable of evacuating plastics that might be in the air, water, and clothes. The air in the lab is also filtered 70 times per hour to catch and immobilize any circulating plastic particles and, to ensure that airflow is always outwards and never in, there is constant positive pressure.
In addition to these precautions, scientists must go through a small room and airlock before entering the clean room, where they put on pure cotton lab coats to reduce the risk of them shedding plastics from their clothes, since plastics are present in most textiles. The scientists are then free to enter a smaller metal chamber within the tightly sealed labs where they can dissect and examine any samples.
Thomas told the AAP that while it is an extraordinary process, it is entirely necessary. “You have to get that background signal down to as low as possible, preferably below what you can detect, which is what we can do for nanoplastics in there,” Thomas said.
The plastic particles that scientists are searching for are capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier, which protects the organ from circulating toxins or pathogens. Plastics that are capable of this are called nanoplastics and they are incredibly small. Thomas said that the researchers are searching for particles that are 1000 times smaller than the width of a human hair—and below. “Our first goal is to be able to reliably measure them so we can actually say definitively whether they have crossed membranes into the body.”
The director of plastics and human health at the Minderoo Foundation, Emerita Prof. Sarah Dunlop, told AAP that the Minderoo Centre is fighting the invisible. “You can see the plastic floating in the ocean, but you can’t see the plastic pollution in us,” Dunlop said. She said that if nano plastics are proven to be in the blood and brain, that in itself is an invasion or a toxic trespass that would demonstrate to the world that plastic pollution has to be stopped. “Detecting plastics and having faith in the results is a very powerful statement to say to the world this plastic pollution has to stop,” she said. “But it’s more than that. We have to be totally disruptive and redesign plastic so it doesn’t fragment into micro and nano plastics and doesn’t contain toxic chemicals. We hope that the scientific findings will shape government policy and health advice on plastic exposure and the chemicals.”