Scientists discover microplastics in deepest section of the lungs

6 April 2022
microplastics fingers
A team of scientists have discovered microplastics in live human lungs in the most robust study of its kind. 

Cutting edge research by a team from Hull York Medical School and the University of Hull say the findings show that inhaling microplastics is a route of exposure and will now help direct future studies on the impact microplastics could have on respiratory health. 

Synthetic fibres have previously been found in lung tissue, but there are limited studies confirming the presence of microplastics – and none as robust as this. 

The study found 39 microplastics in 11 of the 13 lung tissue samples tested –considerably higher than any previous laboratory tests. 

Dr Laura Sadofsky, Senior Lecturer in Respiratory Medicine at Hull York Medical School and lead author on the paper, said: "Microplastics have previously been found in human cadaver autopsy samples - this is the first robust study to show microplastics in lungs from live people.  

"It also shows that they are in the lower parts of the lung. Lung airways are very narrow so no one thought they could possibly get there, but they clearly have. 

"This data provides an important advance in the field of air pollution, microplastics and human health.  

"The characterisation of types and levels of microplastics we have found can now inform realistic conditions for laboratory exposure experiments with the aim of determining health impacts." 

The study was made possible because of the collaboration with surgeons at Castle Hill Hospital, Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust in East Yorkshire, who supplied the live lung tissue. 

Lung tissue was collected from surgical procedures carried out on patients who were still alive, as part of their routine medical care. It was then filtered to see what was present. 

Of the Microplastics detected, there were 12 types, which have many uses and are commonly found in packaging, bottles, clothing, rope/twine, and many manufacturing processes. There were also considerably higher levels of microplastics in male patients compared to females. 

The study showed 11 microplastics were found in the upper part of the lung, seven in the mid part, and 21 in the lower part of the lung – which was an unexpected finding. 

Laura said: "We did not expect to find the highest number of particles in the lower regions of the lungs, or particles of the sizes we found.  This is surprising as the airways are smaller in the lower parts of the lungs, and we would have expected particles of these sizes to be filtered out or trapped before getting this deep into the lungs." 

The study follows research published in March by the University of Hull and Hull York Medical School in which scientists recorded high levels of atmospheric microplastics during a year-long study at a site close to a busy northern trunk road to establish what particles, and their characteristics, people may be exposed to every day. 

Researchers found the most abundant microplastics were polyethylene, from for example degraded plastic packaging or carrier bags; and nylon, which may be from clothes; as well as resins, which could come from degraded roads, paint marking or tyre rubber. Researchers also found microplastics of the size and shape which are inhalable by humans. 

Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy has been published in Science of the Total Environment.  

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