Imagine the shock and surprise of a group of researchers from the US and Italy when they discovered deposits of microplastics and nanoplastics (MNPs) in carotid plaques.

Plastics pervade every corner of the globe, yet their infiltration into our bodies is a profoundly alarming revelation. These MNPs are classified as polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride.

From data analysis, the scientists concluded that those with MNPs exhibited a significantly higher risk of experiencing major cardiovascular events such as myocardial infarction, stroke, or death. This discovery emphasises the urgent need to address the potential health risks of plastic pollution.

Finding plastics inside our bodies rings an alarm bell. It is imperative that we find the source, the environmental pathway that leads the MNPs inside our body. When we dig deep into this aspect, the story becomes even scarier.

Plastic bags and other items that can contaminate our food are not the only concern when it comes to plastics. Recent studies have found that even sea salt and sea fish can contain microplastics.

These particles are less than one micron in size and can contain harmful substances like polypropylene, polyamide, and polyethene.

Research conducted in various countries, including Italy and India, has found that up to 1500 microplastics per kilogram can be present in sea salt. These tiny particles are capable of evading our body’s defence mechanism and crossing cellular barriers, causing irreversible damage to our health and well-being.

In short, these microplastics, formed by the breakdown of larger plastics, are far more dangerous than we previously thought.

Seafood worries

If sea salt is a problem, sea fish, a global diet, can’t be far behind. Microplastic ingestion has been documented across fish species from major oceans and the Mediterranean Sea, as detailed in an article entitled Microplastics in Fish and Fishery Products and Risks for Human Health: A Review, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2023). So plastics are a clear and immediate danger.

Many people believe that thin plastic bags are the primary source of plastic pollution. However, a study conducted by Wei Min and Beizhan Yan and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on January 8, 2024 (doi: 10.1073/pnas.2300582121), revealed that bottled water contains approximately 240,000 nanoplastic particles per litre.

These particles consist of 90 per cent nanoplastics, including polyamide, PET, and other plastics like polyvinyl chloride and polymethyl methacrylate, which are commonly used in water bottles and purification processes.

Little do we realise that bottled water, our go to source all along the day, is a significant pathway for the entry of nanoplastics into the human body.

If the food we eat and the water we drink are polluted, can the air we breathe be far behind? Unfortunately, we have nowhere to escape. Air, a powerful conveyor, disperses these particles globally, leaving no area unaffected.

Airborne danger

Airborne microplastics have been detected in numerous countries across the Northern Hemisphere, including France, Iran, China, Japan, Vietnam, Nepal, the United States, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Kuwait, Greece, Romania, Pakistan, and India. Research reveals that individuals might inhale up to 5,700 microplastics per cubic meter, cumulating to an estimated annual intake of about 22 million micro- and nanoplastics.

This global impact should make us all feel a sense of urgency and responsibility.

Research indicates that shampoos, face creams, hand sanitizers, and sun care products contain high levels of microplastics, with 71 per cent, 60 per cent, 80 per cent, and 83 per cent respectively.

These microplastics pose a significant health risk beyond ingestion, as they can be inhaled and absorbed through the skin. Despite legislative efforts, including the Microbead-Free Waters Act in the US, and bans in South Korea, the European Union, and India, microbeads remain prevalent in many products.

While some Indian companies have substituted plastic microbeads with safer alternatives like microcrystalline wax and apricot seed powder, many products still incorporate harmful polymers. Furthermore, even using scissors or opening plastic items can release 0.46 to 250 microplastics per centimetre.

This in-depth analysis of microplastic and nanoplastic pollution highlights its widespread existence in our surroundings and its harmful effects on human health, with a particular focus on the risks it poses to cardiovascular health.

It is crucial that we increase our awareness and take swift action to reduce plastic consumption and exposure in order to safeguard our health and preserve our planet for future generations.

The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Life Sciences (Zoology), Manipur University (Central University)