Microplastics Impact Study Hindered by Lack of Control Group

The Impact of Microplastics Can't Be Studied Because There is No Control Group
The Impact of Microplastics Can't Be Studied Because There is No Control Group
Garnell Bradley
Garnell Bradley Marketing Coordinator

From the remote high mountain lakes of Sierra Nevada in Spain, to the middle of the world’s oceans, and even bubbling up from the Earth’s mantle; every place on the planet where researchers have looked for nano- and microplastics, they have found them.

It then comes as no surprise that they have even turned up in living tissues too, with scientists finding plastic particles in human hearts both before and after surgery. This presents a unique challenge to studying the impact that microplastics have on human physiology; if they’re everywhere and potentially dangerous, how do you know what would happen if they weren’t present? That may mean it’ll be a long time before we have detailed information about how these contaminants harm our health. In the meantime, here’s what we do know and a few things you can do to lower your exposure and potential risks.

Studying Microplastics in the Environment

Typically, when researchers seek to measure the effects of a substance, they carefully administer it to participants in an experiment. Their reactions are weighed against subjects who have not been exposed to that same substance, while controlling or matching as many other variables as possible.

In the case of microplastics, many researchers are drawing closer to the possibility that there are no humans left in the developed world who have not been exposed to them. Through a combination of poor waste management and Earth’s natural air currents, microplastics have found their way into places humans have not even been yet.

What Are Microplastics?

Microplastics are tiny particles, about five millimeters in diameter, that are inevitably shed by most objects made from plastic. Nanoplastics are similar, but are even smaller than microplastics, and thus have slightly different effects. These plastic fragments can pass through biological barriers, accumulate in organisms over time, can absorb other environmental contaminants, and are more difficult to detect.

Research surrounding these particles is still relatively new, so you may see these terms used interchangeably, especially where their hypothesized effects are concerned. There are also forever chemicals like PFAS, which are different from microplastics, but may be a component present in many of them.

Currently, there are several ways to measure the quantity of micro- and nanoplastics, including fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy, scanning electron microscope imaging, and the Raman method. It will likely take long-term studies and the coordination of several nations and different research groups to accurately assess the dangers of micro- and nanoplastics. Legislation aimed at limiting exposure and the infrastructure to do so could be several years behind that confirmation, but there is hope for both on the horizon.

What Can plastic Do To You?

As it stands, there are several hypotheses about what effects they might have on the human body.
Some researchers have discovered that microplastic contamination in our reproductive systems may pose a threat to fertility. Cancer rates are skyrocketing in young people, and reasons for that too remain speculative, but microplastics are on the list of suspects. Finally, some limited data shows a correlation between pre- and postnatal microplastics in the brain and a correlation with autism-like traits in mice.

Can We Ever Get Rid of Microplastics?

An astounding 436 different species of fungi and bacteria are capable of consuming and degrading microplastics; researchers are currently trying to figure out how to safely introduce them into polluted environments and ensure they are able to degrade large enough quantities to be of benefit. When humans introduce fungi or bacteria into parts of the world where they do not occur naturally, we run the risk of upsetting entire ecosystems as an unintended consequence.

For most of the past few years, new bills aimed at reducing plastic production have been introduced or passed in the United States. As it stands, there is little that we can do to completely avoid exposure to microplastics, but there are ways we can limit it.

Plastic packaging for water and food items appears to be the primary route of microplastic contamination in most people. Avoiding these containers and switching to glass, ceramic, and stainless steel containers is the best way to limit exposure. Finally, filtered water is likely the safest way to stay hydrated, compared to water bottled in plastic. It will be helpful to stay on top of the research as it comes, though rest assured that if further impact on human health is discovered, MedShadow will keep you aware.

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