End Plastics

From Health to History: 5 New Concerning Discoveries about Microplastics

Evidence is mounting on the adverse effects of microplastics. Here’s a snapshot of some of the most compelling research from the last 12 months revealing the widespread presence of microplastics and their toxic chemicals, their discovery locations, and their consequences for human well-being.

1. It’s In Our Water

In January of this year,  new research discovered that a 1 liter plastic water bottle could contain over 240,000 nanoplastics. This number is 100 times higher than the results from previous studies. Dr. Wei Min and Dr. Beizhan Yan, leading researchers from Columbia University, took six 1-liter bottles of water from three unnamed US supermarkets for testing. Using their own technology, known as raman scattering microscopy, the team used lasers to pick up on plastic particles in the water bottles. Out of the microplastics detected, 10% were identified to be PET plastics, the most commonly found plastic and the same  type of plastic used to make the single use water bottles that were tested in the study. Much of the microscopic fragments of plastics counted could not be identified specifically.

This is why I favor drinking tap water from a glass! This same Columbia research team is now investigating tap water so it will be interesting to see what they discover.

Michael Karapetian, Great Global Cleanup Coordinator

2. It’s In Our Oceans

It isn’t just bottled water we should be worrying about – a study published in February of 2024 revealed shocking information about microplastics in our oceans. Large quantities of plastics and microplastics, similar to those found in the largest known garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean, were discovered in brand new areas of the ocean not thought to be impacted. A research team from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), in collaboration with the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), has found large quantities of plastic waste and microplastics in a remote marine protected area in the Pacific Ocean, stretching from Canada to Singapore. The prevalence of these tiny microplastics will have many potential impacts on this ecosystem and on the many fish and marine animals that call it home. This poses a significant challenge, as microplastics are often too small to be captured by large nets or even seen by the human eye, making the challenge of cleaning them up almost impossible.

3. It’s In Our Unborn Babies

In the same month of February, Regents’ Professor at the UNM Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences Matthew Campen published the results of a study that aimed to test the amount of plastic in placenta. After testing 62 patients, each placenta tested positive for microplastics, such as polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, and nylon. Polyethylene is also known as PET plastics, and accounted for 54% of the microplastics in the placentas. These plastics are ubiquitous, found in every plastic container, bottle, and utensil. Other scientists have connected the health risks of plastics to lead to inflammatory bowel disease, colon cancer, and declining sperm counts. 

4. It’s In Our Hearts

In March of 2024, another recent study conducted by scientist Francesco Prattichizzo at IRCCS MultiMedica, a hospital in Italy, aimed to test the impact of microplastics on cardiovascular health. Prattichizzo tested 257 adults who had recently undergone surgery removing plaques from their arteries, and discovered microplastics in the plaque of 150 of these patients. After monitoring them for three years post-operations, Prattichizzo discovered that those with plastics in their bodies were four times as likely to die of a heart related death, such as a heart attack or stroke. This new research proves a link between microplastics and cardiovascular disease, and made headlines around the world.

I think this research on hearts was the one that most shocked me and many other campaigners in this field – it’s hard to look away from these sorts of results because while a lot of research focuses on the chemicals that leach out from microplastics – this one was very much looking at the particles themselves, the physical microplastics. I expect more research will now be underway and in the next year I think this steady and growing trickle of evidence will become a torrent

Aidan Charron, director, end plastic initiatives

5. Seeping into History

While we know that microplastics are getting into our bodies and our oceans – it’s only recently that researchers have discovered it is getting into our history too. Large amounts of microplastics have been discovered in important archaeological sites by researchers from the University of York and Hull in the United Kingdom. Their study was published March 2024, in the journal Science of the Total Environment, and supported by the educational charity York Archaeology.

Their study tested deposits from two important sites – one is called Wellington Row, and is an archaeological site that dates back to the Viking period and the second is a Roman era site known as the Queen’s Hotel. 

Researchers discovered that Wellington Row had the highest concentration of plastics, with 20,588 microplastics per kilogram, while samples from the Queen’s Hotel site contained 5,910 per kilogram. Some of the plastics could not be identified but test results did detect ethylene-vinyl and polyalkene – both used in food packaging. Polyethylene, polypropylene, hydrocarbon resin were also present but 57 percent of the microplastics were made of Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) – better known as Teflon which is used in nonstick cooking pans. 

The contamination of these sites with microplastics could potentially leave researchers unable to fully test these digs for historical information, while also causing increased rates of deterioration.  It seems even history isn’t safe from microplastics. 

This feels like an important moment, confirming what we should have expected: that what were previously thought to be pristine archaeological deposits, ripe for investigation, are in fact contaminated with plastics, and that this includes deposits sampled and stored in the late 1980s…. To what extent this contamination compromises the evidential value of these deposits, and their national importance is what we’ll try to find out next.

professor john schofield, university of york’s department of archaeology

It feels that every part of human existence is bumping up against plastics, from environmental science to human health to history — the menace of microplastics is a fact. Just because we cannot see microplastics or the toxic chemicals that leach out from them doesn’t mean they are not there. We cannot see bacteria or viruses with the naked eye either but we all know they are real. More research on microplastics and their causal links to human health issues is needed but we know it is coming.