New Study Uncovers Discovery Of Microplastics In The Human Heart Tissue For The First Time


Tiny particles of plastic, known as microplastics, pervade our surroundings. A comprehensive 2021 scientific review reveals their presence in our water, food, and the very air we breathe.

Merely a year later, a subsequent study uncovered the existence of microplastics within the human bloodstream. In an unprecedented development, researchers have now identified microplastics in the heart tissues of individuals who have undergone cardiac surgery.

Analyzing heart tissue samples from 15 individuals who underwent heart operations, scientists observed the presence of tens to thousands of individual microplastic pieces in the majority of the analyzed tissue samples. However, the quantities and materials varied among participants, highlighting the nuanced nature of microplastic infiltration into the human body during cardiac surgery.

According to the study author, Xiubin Yang, MD, from the Department of Cardiovascular Surgery at Beijing Anzhen Hospital in China, and colleagues, wrote, “The detection of microplastics in vivo [in the living body] is alarming, and more studies are necessary to investigate how the microparticles enter the cardiac tissues and the potential effects of microplastics on long-term prognosis after cardiac surgery.”

Published in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science and Technology, using direct infrared imaging, Dr. Yang and his team identified 20 to 500 micrometer-wide particles made from eight types of plastic. The scientists also found plastic particles in blood samples collected from participants. They added that “microplastics are highly likely to distribute in various organs throughout the body.”


Possible Introduction of Plastic Particles During Surgery

One of the key findings of the study is the potential role of invasive medical procedures, particularly heart surgery, as an overlooked pathway for microplastics exposure.

The analysis indicated that a fraction of the plastic pieces (0.34 percent) identified had a diameter too large to likely enter the body through inhalation or ingestion, suggesting that the heart operation itself might “permit direct access of microplastics to the bloodstream and tissues.”

Referring to prior scientific studies, the researchers highlighted that microplastics have been identified in the air within operating rooms, posing the potential to enter a patient whose organs are exposed to the air during surgery.

Additionally, they pointed out that sizeable particles could originate from equipment and materials employed in a heart operation, such as surgical incision protective film, intravenous therapy bags, tubing, and syringes.

The types of plastics identified may provide further support for the notion that microplastics could be introduced into the body during surgical procedures.

Christopher Reddy, PhD, an expert on plastic pollution and a senior scientist in the Department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth, Massachusetts, who was not involved in the study, said, “I was very surprised that the two big heavy hitters of plastic pollution in the environment — polyethylene and polypropylene — were relatively very small in this study.”

“Three-quarters of all the plastics in this research were PET, polyethylene terephthalate [commonly used in plastic water bottles],” he added.

While it is conceivable that particles are leaching from plastic materials associated with surgical procedures, Dr. Timothy O’Toole, a PhD and Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Kentucky, who has extensively researched the impact of microplastics on heart disease risk, proposes an alternative perspective.

He suggests that the pervasive prevalence of microplastic contamination is so widespread that these minuscule particles may also be infiltrating heart tissue through environmental exposure.

Dr. O’Toole, who was not involved in this research, said, “Previous studies have shown that microplastics have been found in a number of human tissue samples — blood, lungs, breast milk, feces — which are believed to come from food, water supplies, or by inhalation. The importance of this study seems to be that routine medical procedures may introduce them as well.”


The Dangers of Microplastics in the Body

Regardless of how microplastics get into the body, some scientific evidence has pointed out potential health issues. An analysis published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials looked at 17 former reports which involved the impact of microplastics on human cells. They discovered that ingesting microplastics could contribute to cell death, damage to cell walls, and allergic response.

In a mouse study, which was published in 2021 in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, O’Toole and his colleagues found that microplastics could be an unrecognized risk factor for atherosclerosis (the narrowing and hardening of arteries) and cardiovascular disease.

“Chronic exposure may also lead to health problems associated with inflammation, such as diabetes or liver disease. The danger to one’s health may depend on how long these particles have been in the heart. If just introduced during the procedure, microplastics are probably not of immediate concern, but they may cause long-term problems if not cleared,” says Dr. O’Toole.

Although the health implications remain uncertain, mitigating exposure in our modern-day society poses challenges. Nevertheless, minimizing the use of plastic packaging and products when feasible could potentially decrease some risks.

Dr. Reddy highlights the imperative and extensive research, featuring the limitations of the present study, which comprised only 15 individuals from China. Notably, three-quarters of the identified PET particles originated from a single participant, underscoring the need for broader investigations to draw more comprehensive conclusions.

He goes on to say, “This is a relatively limited amount of samples by one lab group. The big question is still, ‘What are the negative effects from exposure?’ At this stage, if I knew anybody was having cardiac surgery, I wouldn’t be worried about the potential issues of plastic getting in the body.”