A small study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests microplastics and the smaller nanoplastics might affect the heart. Image for representational purpose only. File
| Photo Credit: AP

In recent years, microplastics have become a matter of growing concern for human health.

In a recent study published in the New England Journal of MedicineMicroplastics and Nanoplastics (MNP) in Atheromas and Cardiovascular Events, of more than 200 persons undergoing carotid endarterectomy (surgery to remove blockages in the carotid artery), 58% had a detectable amount of polyethylene in the excised carotid plaque, and 12% also had a measurable amount of polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

While polyethylene is widely present as a part of food containers, bags and wrappers, PVC is commonly used to make pipes and other structural materials. When patients who underwent the surgery were followed up for nearly three years, those with evidence of plastics in their arteries were 4.5 times more likely to experience a heart attack, a stroke or death than were those whose arteries were plastic-free, according to Sanjay Rajagopalan, Chief of Cardiovascular Medicine at University Hospitals and Herman Hellerstein Professor of Medicine at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine in Cleveland, U.S, who was a co-author on the study together with Rafaelle Marfella and colleagues from Italy, the United States and Denmark.

In the prospective, multicentre, observational study, patients were assigned to groups – one with plaque in which MNPs were detected and the other with plaque in which MNPs were not detected.

Plastics are ubiquitous in the biosphere and tend to shed microscopic particles that end up being inhaled or ingested by people, he said in an email, adding that although plastics have been noted in humans in other tissues, and are increasingly being implicated in health effects such as cancers and metabolic disease, this is the first study that has suggested an association with heart attacks and strokes.

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The authors noted that the results do not prove causality and the study has certain limitations. “While an association by no means proves causality, it is certainly very concerning that plastics are winding up in parts of your body where they certainly have no business to be present,” Dr. Rajagopalan pointed out.

What is the key takeaway for individuals? “One thing is for certain. While plastics are revolutionary especially in medicine, it is a common observation that they are overused, especially for preparation and storage of food and water and their use as such bags. Until we fully understand their health effects, there should be extraordinary caution in their use and individuals should consider alternative storage containers such as glass or steel. Avoiding purchasing plastic water bottles and using reusable stainless steel containers is also cost effective,” he added.

He also said that careful disposal of plastics of any kind is important to reduce the widespread contamination of the biosphere with plastics.

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