Well-Being Prevention & Cures

You eat microplastics every day. Here’s what they may be doing in your body

Story at a glance

  • One estimate suggests that we may consume 5 grams of plastic each week.
  • This can be from food and water, bottled or tap.
  • Researchers tested how microplastics may interact with cells and found that it may stretch the membrane.

Plastics are everywhere, and as useful as they are, all kinds of experts are concerned about their impact. The plastic waste that gets dumped in the ocean may be affecting ocean life. Not only that, microplastics could be ingested by humans and animals alike. By one estimate, you could be eating 5 grams of plastic each week. And we’re only just starting to learn how they could affect our bodies.

In a study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers exposed cells in a laboratory setting to microplastics ranging in size from 1 to 10 micrometers. They found that the pieces of microplastic could attach to the lipid membrane of the cell and cause the membrane to stretch. This could potentially lead to health problems.

One of the researchers on the study, Vladimir Baulin, who is a physicist and researcher in the Department of Physical and Inorganic Chemistry at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili, developed a theoretical model to try to predict what may happen when a cell membrane encounters a piece of microplastic. Then they tested this on artificial cells and on human red blood cells.

In the experiments, they found that the microplastic could consume part of the membrane area and that would cause the membrane to contract around that area. This in turn leads to overall stretching of the cell membrane.


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This mechanical stretching of the cells could reduce its flexibility and ability to move around. The plastic destabilizes the membrane and causes it to tighten. “Surprisingly, however, we observe that the membranes of artificial cells and red blood cells stretch in the presence of microplastics,” says Jean-Baptiste Fleury, who is conducting research as an experimental physicist at the University of Saarland, in a press release.

Although more studies will be necessary to understand more about how microplastics affect health, this is a first step in understanding what may be a mechanism. The effect may not be fatal, but experts remain concerned. People may be ingesting microplastics through drinking water, both bottled and tap.

“A priori, microplastics are not fatal immediately after ingestion into living organisms,” explains Fleury. “However, it is increasingly recognized that microplastics can oxidize or stress cells through biological processes. The possibility they may also stress a cell membrane through purely physical processes, however, is completely ignored by the vast majority of studies.”


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