Documentary and New York Times article explore health risks of microplastics

A new documentary exploring the growing threat of microplastics for human health premiers at the SXSW Film Festival this month. The film titled “Plastic People” dives into the emerging research conducted by scientists around the world. Its conclusion is worrying: potential health risks of microplastics are becoming hard to ignore. A New York Times article published this week discusses the documentary and reviews recent scientific findings, including those of MOMENTUM researchers Nienke Vrisekoop and Barbro Melgert.

Microplastics impact

Scientists have discovered microplastics inside the human body, including in the lungs, blood, feces, breast milk, arteries, and the brain, the article explains. More recently, microplastic pollution was linked to disease for the first time. Scientists found that cardiovascular patients with microplastics in their arteries had a higher risk of heart attack, stroke, or death. Nevertheless, the effects of microplastics on human health are still largely unknown. It is also not clear how microplastics may affect the body. Investigating these questions is one of the goals of the MOMENTUM consortium.

MOMENTUM researchers

The article features interviews with MOMENTUM’s Nienke Vrisekoop from the University Medical Center Utrecht and Barbro Melgert from the University of Groningen. Vrisekoop explains that immune cells that came into contact with microplastics died three times as quickly as those that were not exposed to plastic. Polystyrene turned out to be the most toxic. Melgert, on the other hand, focuses on the impact of microplastic on the lungs. Her group found that microplastics inhibited the development of lung structures in the lab, with vinyl being the most damaging. Melgert thinks that chemicals leaching from plastics may be causing damage, but she is still trying to understand exactly how microplastics affect living cells. Plastic is particularly problematic, because the body does not break it down, she notes. “It can just stay in the lungs.”

Inspire change

Despite some of the concerning findings, the documentary ends on a more hopeful note. Co-director Miya Tong hopes that the film can inspire change. For example by motivating consumers to reduce their plastic use. Similarly, political leaders may be encouraged to take action. A good opportunity might be a United Nations gathering in Ottawa next month. There, delegates will negotiate a treaty proposal to limit the growth of plastic pollution. Tong points out that solving the problem does not need to be complex. “We just have to use less plastic.”