Spanish researchers find microplastics in the airways

by Lorraine Williamson
exposure to microplastics

Research carried out at the Hospital General Universitario de Elche, in collaboration with the Polytechnic University of Cartagena and the Autonomous University of Madrid, has for the first time discovered microplastics in the bronchi of humans. 

These tiny synthetic fibres measuring less than five millimetres were found in two of the three bronchoalveolar lavages. These are examinations in which airways are viewed and flushed from the inside. Consequently, they are carried out on patients with lung diseases. Furthermore, almost half of the microplastics and microfibres detected were viscose rayon. This was followed by polyester, cellulose and cotton. Moreover, the results can be extrapolated to the general public. ‘We are all exposed to the inhalation of microplastics,’ concludes Dr Carlos Baeza Martínez, from the Pneumology Department of the Hospital General Universitario de Elche, who led the study.  

‘Air pollution from microplastics is not as well studied as soil or water pollution. However, it is a more serious problem than we think. Everywhere we look there is plastic. The clothes we wear give off tiny fibres that we can end up inhaling,’ warns Professor Javier Bayo of the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Cartagena (UPCT), where the chemical analyses of the samples were carried out in collaboration with laboratories at the Autonomous University of Madrid. 

The results of the study were presented at the 55th Congress of the Spanish Society of Pneumology and Thoracic Surgery (SEPAR), held in Pamplona in June. Furthermore, the research received one of the SEPAR patient awards there. The research was published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials. This is one of the most important international journals on pollution and its risks to humans.

Risk factors 

The results show that people who have more microplastics in their respiratory system have more pathogenic bacterial growth. ‘It seems that microplastics may promote the growth of pathogenic germs or facilitate their transport through the air,’ according to Dr Baeza. 

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In patients with more fluctuating radiological tests, a higher rate of bronchial obstruction and poorer respiratory function, more plastics and fibres were found in the bronchi. Furthermore, microplastics were more frequently found in;

  • bronchi in women
  • people over 60 years old
  • active smokers
  • people exposed to higher risk environments.

Moreover, people in high risk work environments include workers in sectors like construction, carpentry, the shoe industry or electronics.  

Reducing the risk 

So, how can we actively reduce the risk? These are some simple, yet effective measures we can all take;

  • avoid single-use plastics as much as possible
  • providing adequate ventilation in indoor areas
  • use respiratory protection systems in dusty or cutting environments
  • not smoking

These preventive measures are recommended by the study authors to reduce the inhalation of microplastics. Furthermore, it is also recommended that road traffic in cities be limited, as many microplastics in urban air are generated by the wear and tear of car tyres. 

Also read: Microplastics in Antarctica

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