Plastics in my brain!
Dr Anirban Ghosh
On a scorching summer day or the brilliant winter-sun blazes down, and there's nothing quite like the sensation of being on the open road, wind in your hair, and your faithful companion, a bottle of water, by your side. We often reach for the convenience of plastic bottles, not just while traveling but also in our daily lives. Plastic containers have become the go-to solution for quenching our thirst.
It's a choice we make without thinking, but it's a choice that carries consequences. We knowingly and unknowingly introduce plastics into our bodies and the world around us. Plastic, it seems, is inescapable. It lurks in the soil beneath our feet, contaminates our water sources, taints the very air we breathe, and stealthily infiltrates our food chain. It's a pervasive intruder, impossible to evade.
The harsh reality hits even closer to home – it's entirely possible that plastic has also infiltrated the inner sanctum of our minds, our brain cells. The idea is unsettling, a reminder that this material we take for granted, the seemingly harmless plastic bottle, could have implications far beyond what we can currently comprehend. Plastic use has become an integral part of our daily lives, from using plastic bottles to consuming food packaged in plastic containers. However, as we all know very well this convenience comes at a cost, as plastic waste has infiltrated our environment, our bodies, and even our brains.
Plastics break down into smaller particles, known as microplastics and even smaller nanoplastics, when exposed to sunlight, wind, or water. These tiny plastic particles, collectively called MnPs, are virtually everywhere, including the polar regions. Nanoplastics are of particular concern due to their minuscule size and the limited understanding of their effects. They can be transported by air currents, potentially spreading far and wide. The rise of nanoplastics pollution poses a more significant problem than initially estimated, given their presence in remote and uninhabited areas.
The global plastics industry began in 1907 with the production of Bakelite, and it has since grown exponentially. Plastics are complex chemical materials made from fossil carbon sources such as coal, oil, and gas. They contain various toxic chemicals like carcinogens, neurotoxicants, and endocrine disruptors, which harm human health and the environment. Plastics are versatile, cost-effective, and durable, which is why they are used extensively in various industries. However, they often end up in landfills or as marine litter due to challenges in recycling and the low cost of virgin plastic production. To tackle this issue, strategies like design and reuse, recycled content standards, and impact investing are needed. The global plastic use is projected to rise dramatically from 460 million metric tons in 2019 to 1,231 million metric tons by 2060. These plastics have varying lifetimes, with some being disposable, while others last for years. Approximately 30% of all plastics produced are still in use, but the majority, around 60%, have been discarded into landfills and the environment.
“Plastics”, the "Plan B" for the Fossil Fuel Industry! As the world transitions towards renewable energy and greener technologies, the fossil fuel industry is turning to petrochemicals and plastics as its next major growth market.
Plastics and their associated chemicals have far-reaching and harmful effects on human health, the environment, and the economy. Plastics have contaminated water bodies, soil, and the atmosphere, with the ocean being a major destination for plastic waste. Plastics can persist in the environment for decades and have been found in various marine species.
Nanoplastics, an Emerging Concern. Nanoplastics, with dimensions between 1 nanometer(nm) and 1 micrometer, have been detected in environmental samples and the food chain. (printing paper is about 75 thousand nm thick!). There are multiple plastic exposure routes for humans, primarily through oral intake from drinking water and consumption of contaminated food. Inhalation and dermal exposure are also possible, but their effects on human health are not yet fully understood.
Nanoplastics able to cross biological barriers. These barriers are defence mechanism for living organisms to selectively and inevitably limit the accumulation of many substances. Nanoplastics have been found to cross important biological barriers in the human body, including the intestinal barrier, blood-air barrier in the lungs, blood-brain barrier, and the placental barrier. These crossings can lead to buildup over long time and increase risks of adverse health effects in humans.
Nanoplastics undergo many environmental interactions and consequential toxic effects. Nanoplastics interact with various environmental components and have the potential to adsorb and desorb organic compounds, including metal, drugs and pesticides. These interactions affect the bioavailability, degradation, transport, and toxicity of nanoplastics. They have been linked to oxidative damage, reduced growth, organelle damage, inflammation, and other harmful effects on aquatic organisms.
Unequal distribution of plastic harms. The adverse effects of plastics and plastic pollution disproportionately affect poor countries, marginalized populations, including workers, minorities, and Indigenous communities due to differing quality of waste management infrastructure around the world. This environmental injustice highlights the need to address the harmful impacts of plastics across society.
A Call for Action? But WHEN? To tackle the global plastic crisis, there is a need for extensive research on effective and cost-effective solutions at the national level. Oceanographic and environmental research is necessary to measure plastic concentrations, while biomedical research must investigate the health impacts of plastics, particularly nanoplastics.
As we sip from our plastic bottles on those sweltering summer days, it's a stark reminder of our interconnectedness with this ubiquitous material. Plastic has become more than just a convenience; it's an integral part of our lives, leaving its mark on our bodies, the environment, and even our very thoughts. It's a wake-up call to consider the choices we make and their lasting impact on ourselves and the world we inhabit. In the meantime, we can take small steps to reduce our plastic consumption, such as avoiding plastic bottles and packaging, to minimize the accumulation of nanoplastics in our bodies.
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2. Nanomaterials; https://doi.org/10.3390/nano13081404
3. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17051509
4. Environment International https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2022.107662
*Anirban Ghosh, PhD, Moncton, NB, Canada may be contacted at