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March 25, 2024

Microplastic effects on health

Microplastics are everywhere – in our water and food, everyday household items, beauty products like shampoo, children’s toys, our home furnishings, and our rivers. Microplastics can also pollute our indoor air. So what is known about the effects of microplastics on human cells?


A study led by researchers at Hull York Medical School was the first of its kind to analyse the effects of microplastics on human cells. Researchers tested microplastic contamination of drinking water and seafood to study the effect of microplastics on human cells in a laboratory setting. They found that when human cells were exposed to high levels of microplastic contamination, there were toxicological effects such as cell death and allergic reactions.


Microplastics can be detected by electron microscopy in human placentas. The presence of microplastics has been correlated with alterations of some cellular structures in placental tissue, mainly in the syncytiotrophoblast which is the main transport system for nutrients and metabolic activity in the placenta.


Microplastics detected in key blood vessels in people monitored during a three year study were found to be more likely to suffer stroke, heart attack or death.


An expert’s view on microplastics

We invited Professor Anna Hansell, Professor of Environmental Epidemiology and Director of the Centre for Environmental Health and Sustainability at Leicester University  to share her thoughts on the state of the science on the possible health effects of microplastics. Anna told us:


Plastics cause well documented damage to marine environments. Fragments of plastic have found their way into all elements of the food chain and the environment, and are set to rise given the large amounts of plastics already manufactured and their very slow rate of degradation. Their manufacture often involves the use of chemicals shown to be harmful to health that can leach out into the body and have potential to disrupt hormones and cause cancer. It is of concern that these plastic fragments are now being detected in air, forming another route by which they get into the body.


Plastics in general are not good for the environment. We know that marine plastic is a huge problem and affecting ecosystems. Chemicals in some plastics like phthalates (used as plasticisers) are very likely a problem, but the scale of impacts are still being disputed. It’s important to note that plastics are not the only source of exposure – phthalates are found in many other products such as toiletries and skincare.


Microplastics in the air are very interesting – however as yet it’s unclear how much of a problem they are for health. Most of the work to date has been in outdoor air, so there are still a lot of unknowns. We breathe over 20,000 times per day between 12-20 times per minute. Normal air contains dusts and particles from natural and manmade sources. Toxicological studies have calculated that healthy adults may have millions of microparticles from all sources being deposited in their lungs over the course of the day.


Microplastics in air from only a tiny fraction of the microparticles we inhale everyday. Whilst small amounts in comparison to other airborne substances, they may still be having a toxic effect – we just don’t know enough yet. For plastic microparticles to have a harmful effect, they would have to have a very much larger toxicological impact than other combustion particles that we know the most about, such as cigarette smoke, or spores from mould for example. The current view in the scientific community seems to be that many of these plastic microparticles could be harmless and removed by the body by usual detoxification mechanisms, but evidence is beginning to build that they could be harming our health.


In conclusion, Anna told us, “We don’t yet know the long term effects of exposure to plastic fragments in humans, but there is more than enough evidence already available on ecological impacts to take actions to replace plastics with sustainable alternatives. What we really need are more toxicological studies to tell us if microplastics are harmful

Reduce your exposure to microplastics

Microplastics are hard to avoid entirely, but there are steps you can follow to help reduce your exposure to them.

  • Avoid drinking water from plastic bottles, and if you do, keep them in a cool place and not in direct sunlight and don’t refill or re-use them. 
  • Drink tap water, it has much lower levels of microplastics due to the water treatment process. 
  • Soft drinks stored in plastic bottles may have similar levels of microplastics, so choose drinks packaged in cans as an alternative. 
  • Use glass or steel bottles to store drinking water when you’re on the move, and clean them regularly. 
  • Use glass feeding bottles for babies and infants. Polypropylene bottles release up to 16M microplastic particles per litre into baby feeding bottles. 
  • Filter all water for drinking and cooking, including ice cubes with a countertop or whole system water filter (plumbed in). Premium systems tend to remove more impurities, so take a close look at claims the manufacturers before buying.  
  • Gravity filter systems take longer to filter the water which results in a purer water result. 
  • Avoid plastic chopping boards and choose wood or glass instead.
  • Remove food from plastic packaging before heating in an over or microwave.
  • Use a HEPA air filter in your home to reduce airborne microplastic particles.
  • Read our post about microplastics in laundry to lear more about how to reduce your exposure further.


Image credit: Jose L. Hita Diaz de Mera


The information on our website should not be used as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or other professional healthcare provider. If you have any specific questions about any medical matter, you should consult your doctor or other professional healthcare provider. is not responsible for the content of external websites. The inclusion of a link to a third-party website should not be understood as an endorsement. 



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