• Tech Tech

New study examines how tiny pollutants float through human lungs: 'Concerns ... have increased over the past decade'

The study simulated how these tiny toxic particles travel through our airways.

The study simulated how these tiny toxic particles travel through our airways.

Photo Credit: iStock

Researchers have been sounding the alarm about microplastics in human bodies for some time, and a new study examines how these tiny toxic particles travel through our airways.

What's happening?

The analysis, published in the journal Physics of Fluids, simulated how microplastics may move throughout different parts of the human respiratory system, including the trachea and lungs.

"The concerns about microplastics in the atmosphere have increased over the past decade due to the associated risks to public health and the environment," the authors of the study wrote, citing multiple studies in which microplastics have been found in human lungs

Their computer model found that microplastic accumulation varied depending on inhalation rates and particle size, creating "deposition hotspots" connected to the intensity of airflow. The trachea, which the authors described as having a "comparatively less complicated airway structure," experienced less microplastic accumulation than the lungs. 

Why is this important?

While the three major routes of microplastic exposure are food, air, and contact with skin, the "concentration range" via inhalation is the highest, according to the study. Thus, it is crucial to understand how the particles are being dispersed once they enter our bodies. 

Researchers haven't made any definitive conclusions about the impacts of microplastics — and the even tinier nanoplastics — on our health, but the particles have been linked to severe health issues that affect our quality of life, including cancer, neurological diseases, and anxiety.

Without active solutions, the problem of plastic pollution isn't going away on its own, either. Production of the material has grown by leaps and bounds since the 1950s, as detailed by Our World in Data, and much of it ends up as waste polluting our oceans, parks, and communities.

What can be done about the effects of plastic pollution?

The authors believe their work could result in more accurate assessments of the risks of inhaling harmful pollutants. With further research and development, that data could lead to better outcomes for patients.  

"Understanding these hotspots is crucial for assessing the health risks of microplastic exposure and improving the design of drug delivery systems," Mohammad S. Islam, one of the study's authors, said in a release by the American Institute of Physics. 

Other scientists are focused on the physical problem of plastic pollution. One study found that wax worms may help break down polyethylene, a plastic used in everyday products like food packaging. 

Meanwhile, many brands are upgrading their packaging. Among them is Pringles, which rolled out a fully recyclable cardboard tube for its chips, and Sun & Swell, which sells healthy snacks in compostable wrapping. 

Supporting brands that offer plastic-free packaging and avoiding single-use plastic products, like grocery bags and water bottles, are some ways individuals can contribute to a healthier, cleaner future. 

Join our free newsletter for weekly updates on the coolest innovations improving our lives and saving our planet.

Cool Divider