Is micro plastic pollution a threat to fertility?

We all know that plastic waste in the environment is a problem. Car tyres, flooring, drinks containers, furniture, electronic devices, textiles, and packaging to name a few. Plastics are everywhere!

But they didn’t used to be. Plastics are a relatively modern phenomenon and weren’t ubiquitous until the 1950s. And they reached modern levels of usage from the 1960s.

The issues with plastics tend to originate with two factors. Firstly, because they haven’t been around that long we don’t know much about their long-term effects on the environment. Secondly, they last a long time. This is because there is no simple breakdown mechanism compared to natural products.

Micro plastics are a problem

One of the problems is micro plastics. These are tiny particles formed when plastics break up in the environment. This can be because of physical factors such as the effects of wind, rain, weather and waves. They are typically less than 0.2 inches (5 mm) across, but nano plastic particles can be as small as a fiftieth of the width of a human hair.

These particles can be ingested by humans in food and water, they then pass through the stomach and intestines. However, it has now been shown that they can accumulate in other organs such as the kidneys, liver and lungs.

A micrograph showing plastic nanoparticles derived from synthetic materials

The effects on humans are unknown, BUT studies have linked micro plastic infiltration in animals to infertility, inflammation and cancer.

Micro plastics found in human tissue

Arizona State University, USA examined tissue taken from kidneys, livers, lungs and spleens. This was kept in a tissue repository and found micro plastic particles in all of them.

Charles Rolsky, Lead Scientist said, “You can find plastics contaminating the environment at virtually every location on the globe. In a few short decades, we’ve gone from seeing plastic as a wonderful benefit to considering it a threat.”

Professor Rolf Halden, Co-Researcher explained how they plan to build a tool to determine the routes of micro plastic ingestion in humans. He said, “The tissue donors provided detailed information on their lifestyle, diet and occupational exposure. Because these donors have such well-defined histories, our study provides the first clues on potential micro and nano plastic exposure sources and routes.”

They are developing computer software to convert data on plastic particle counts in tissues into an online tool, so that other researchers can report their results in a standardised manner.

Plastic exposure database

Professor Halden said, “This shared resource will help build a plastic exposure database. We can then compare exposures in organs and groups of people over time and geographic space.”

In terms of fertility issues, micro plastics have already been shown to affect fertility in lower marine animals. So, more research is definitely needed to determine the threat to humans.

The team says, “We want to be alarmist, but it is concerning that these non-biodegradable materials that are present everywhere can enter and accumulate in human tissues. Once we get a better idea of what’s in the tissues, we can conduct epidemiological studies to assess human health outcomes. That way, we can start to understand the potential health risks, if any.”