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  • AutorenbildMichael Mutter

Microplastics: a threat to the sea and to human health

Plastics have undoubtedly enriched both modern medicine and everyday life, but their ubiquity is now associated with a number of health and environmental problems.

Plastics were once praised for their versatility and ease of use, but today they have been shown to contain substances that are harmful to human and animal health. Over the decades, production has skyrocketed, from less than 2 million tons in 1950 to 400 million tons today, with projections suggesting a doubling by 2040 and a tripling by 2060. This increase in production has led to a flood of plastic waste that pollutes the environment and breaks down into harmful microplastic (MP, < 1 mm) and nanoplastic particles (NP, < 1 um).

Microplastics (MP) can be found all over the sea, from coastal waters to the high seas, from the surface to the deep sea and even in marine sediments. MP comes from various sources such as biological and photo-oxidative degradation, physical fragmentation or chemical deposition of large plastics. MP also includes microbeads from personal care products, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and synthetic fibers from the manufacture of textiles. MP is primarily brought into the oceans by humans, particularly through aquaculture, fishing, industry and wastewater. It poses a significant environmental risk as it enters zooplankton, fish, shrimp, mussels and top-of-the-food-chain hunters such as whales and dolphins.

These tiny particles can block the digestive tract of living organisms, impair energy supply and inhibit growth. The detection of MP in food fish underlines their accumulation in the food chain, which is associated with harmful effects such as disruption of the energy balance, inflammation, negative effects on the immune system and the accumulation of organic pollutants and heavy metals adsorbed by MP in the tissues. In addition, MP can cause behavioral changes in fish - presumably through deposition in the nervous system - which affect their instincts and lead to malnutrition.

Despite the growing awareness of the dangers posed by MP, there are still significant gaps in knowledge regarding its toxic effects on humans. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) by Marfella et al. from the University of Naples sheds further light on the presence of Mp andNP in the human organism. They found MP and NP in the plaque (deposition) of 58% of patients who underwent carotid endarterectomy (removal of deposits in a narrowed carotid artery). The presence of MP correlated with a 4.5 times higher risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attack, stroke or death as well as increased levels of inflammatory markers during a 3-year observation period.

The study highlights a worrying link between plastic pollution and adverse cardiovascular effects. It suggests that plastic particles are new risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

This shows the complex relationship between MP and adverse cardiovascular outcomes and reminds us that our organism is in constant exchange with its environment. The ubiquity of plastic pollution is illustrated by the detection of MP in the body of almost all people in the USA.

Overall, the study underlines the urgency of tackling plastic pollution and understanding its multiple impacts on human health and the environment.

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