April 11, 2022 -- Scientists have identified microplastics in lung tissue taken from living people for the first time.

The scientists found microplastics in all parts of the lung, but found significantly higher levels in the lower lung.

The results suggest people might be exposed to microplastics in the air by inhaling them, according to the team from the University of Hull and Hull York Medical School, who said their findings could support further research into the effects of airborne microplastics on lung health.

The study, published in Science of the Total Environment, used lung tissue collected from surgeries on patients during routine medical care at Castle Hill Hospital in East Yorkshire.

The researchers found 39 particles of microplastics in 11 of the 13 lung tissue samples they tested, which the scientists said was considerably higher than results from previous laboratory tests.

The scientists identified 12 types of plastics, of which the most common were polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate, and resin. The fibers are commonly found in packaging, bottles, clothing, rope and twine manufacturing, and other industries, the scientists said.

The researchers found microplastics with dimensions as small as 4 micrometers, and said they were surprised to discover particles larger than 2 mm within all lung region samples, with the majority being fibrous and fragmented.

The study identified 11 microplastics in the upper part of the lung, seven in the mid part, and 21 in the lower part of the lung.

"Microplastics have previously been found in human cadaver autopsy samples,” Laura Sadofsky, MBBS, a lecturer in respiratory medicine at Hull York Medical School who led the research, said in a press release. “This is the first robust study to show microplastics in lungs from live people.”

"It also shows that they are in the lower parts of the lung. Lung airways are very narrow so no one thought they could possibly get there, but they clearly have," she said.

The scientists found considerably higher levels of microplastics in male patients compared with females.

Knowing the types and levels of microplastics found in the lungs can inform future research to understand the impact on health, Sadofsky said.

Show Sources

Science of the Total Environment: “Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy.”

The University of Hull: “Scientists Discover Microplastics in Deepest Section of the Lungs.”

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