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Living With Climate Change: Plastic was found in human blood for the first time. Is this a public health risk?

New research has found evidence of plastic in the bloodstream of humans for the first time. But how it might regularly get there and what long-lasting impacts can be expected, including if it can clear the blood-brain barrier, are open to further discovery.

Still, it’s an eye-opening revelation considering that microplastics — some created from scratch for everyday products including toothpaste and others, and the result of larger plastic breaking down — are known to be inhaled from the air or digested when eating fish, for instance, and other food. You eat or breathe in about 2,000 tiny plastic particles each week, the World Wildlife Federation found in a 2019 study. Many are ingested from bottled and tap water.

Read more: MarketWatch’s Amelia Langas explains how these 5-millimeter pellets affect humans and the environment.

Much of the world isn’t likely to wean itself from the hygienic and convenient features of plastic without a dramatic rethink of consumption. Plastic production, which has revolutionized everything from administering medical care to keeping food fresh longer, is slated to quadruple by 2050.

“‘…[N]o study to date has reported on the internal exposure of plastic particles in human blood.’”

— Dick Vethaak

But health concerns, in fact, may just bring about that behavior change.

For this new study, researchers analyzed blood samples for traces of varying polymers, which are the building blocks of plastics. The study was small; 22 anonymous donors gave blood samples, and some variation of plastic was found in 80% of the study group.

Dick Vethaak, professor of ecotoxicology, water quality and health at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and his co-authors were published this week in the peer-reviewed journal Environment International

“Plastic particles are ubiquitous pollutants in the living environment and food chain, but no study to date has reported on the internal exposure of plastic particles in human blood,” Vethaak and team wrote.

“An understanding of the exposure of these substances in humans and the associated hazard of such exposure is needed to determine whether or not plastic particle exposure is a public health risk,” they added.

Next steps, the group said, is determining: Where are these particles traveling? Do they accumulate in certain organs? Is the accumulation high enough to trigger disease?

“ Humans have produced 18.2 trillion pounds of plastics  since large-scale plastic production began in the early 1950s, according to a 2017 study. One comparison said the amount equals 1 billion elephants.  ”

Most prominent in the blood samples was polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a common type of plastic used in making drink bottles, food packaging and fabrics. And the second most commonly found plastic: polystyrene, which is used to make disposable plates and food containers, including what we call styrofoam.

Don’t miss: Coca-Cola to boost use of refillable bottles in an ‘industry-leading’ move against plastic waste

Third was polyethylene, a material regularly used in the production of paints, sandwich bags, shopping bags and detergent bottles. And, perhaps surprising to some, it is also found in toothpaste and sunscreen. The ultra-fine grit creates the consistency of toothpaste and lotion that its makers say give the products structural integrity.

Read: Recycling is confusing — how to be smarter about all that takeout plastic

Polypropylene, which is also used in making food containers and rugs, was also found, but at concentrations too low for an accurate measurement, the researchers said.

“ Next steps, the group said, is determining: Where are these particles traveling? Do they accumulate in certain organs? Is the accumulation high enough to trigger disease? ”

Humans have produced 18.2 trillion pounds of plastics since large-scale plastic production began in the early 1950s, according to a 2017 study. One comparison said the amount equals 1 billion elephants. Nearly 80% of that plastic is now in landfills. Read more on plastics from the EPA.

“Most plastics don’t biodegrade in any meaningful sense, so the plastic waste humans have generated could be with us for hundreds or even thousands of years,” said Jenna Jambeck, co-author of the 2017 study, at the time.

With the issue persisting, the solution to plastic waste and overuse has joined the top ranks of other environmental concerns. In fact, many issues are related: dealing with plastic pollution could take up to 10%-13% of the global budget needed to reduce carbon emissions

Signs indicate policy changes are coming. The United Nations, over the next two years, will finalize its first-ever treaty binding countries in controlling plastic waste.

All used plastic can be turned into new things, but picking it up, sorting it and melting it down is expensive. Plastic also degrades each time it is reused, meaning it can’t be reused too many times. New plastic is much cheaper to make. It’s a derivative of oil
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and historically, virgin plastic is the best quality.

And finally, plastic recycling programs are popular, but remained flawed.

Read: Here’s the tiny percentage of plastic that’s recycled despite single-use bans, taxes and incentives

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