Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy graphical abstract high res

Scientists Find Microplastics in Living Human Lung Tissue – The Potential Long Term Health Risks of Long Term Face Mask Use During the COVID 19 Pandemic – n95 and surgical masks

Study finds microplastics in living lung tissue, mainly polyethylene and polyethylene, the main materials in n95 and surgical COVID face masks
April 19, 2022

In the COVID-19 pandemic, the effectiveness of face masks has been a highly controversial topic, with health authorities flip flopping their stance for or against face masks, as a public health measure against COVID-19. Regardless of their alleged effectiveness…for over 2 years billions around the world have been subject to mandated face masks, in varying levels of regulation, depending on the country: from public places such as grocery stores, to schools, work, and sometimes in gyms or during exercise. Even after mandates have been lifted, many individuals driven by fear of COVID-19’s 99.85% survival rate, have opted to continue wearing masks throughout their daily lives. But just what is the health cost of this unprecedented use of synthetic fabric face masks, on the long-term health of humans? A recent study has given us a glimpse into some of the potential long term health effects of wearing face masks 24/7:

“In summary, this study is the first to report MPs within human lung tissue samples, using μFTIR spectroscopy. The abundance of MPs within samples, significantly above that of blanks, supports human inhalation as a route of environmental exposure.”

Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy

The study titled Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy, was published on sciencedirect in a publication called “Science of the Total Environment“, which utilized μFTIR spectroscopy and in 11 of the 13 lung tissue samples, found a total of 39 micro-plastics in “all regions of the human lungs”: 11 microplastics found in the upper, 7 in the mid and 21 in the lower part of the lung. Most predominate microplastics found were polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate fibres, coincidentally the most common plastics used to make surgical and N95 covid face masks, which have become a daily accessory for most throughout the COVID 19 pandemic.

Study Details

Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy graphical abstract high res
Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy graphical abstract high res

“This report provides compelling evidence of MPs within human lung tissue samples, using a robust, best practice, background contamination regime combined with μFTIR chemical composition analysis to verify the particles present.”

Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy

The study was made possible because of the collaboration with surgeons at Castle Hill Hospital in East Yorkshire, who supplied the live lung tissue.

“this is the first robust study to show microplastics in lungs from live people.”

Laura Sadofsky, lead author on the paper

Lung tissue was collected from surgical procedures carried out on patients who were still alive, as part of their routine medical care. It was then filtered to observe what was present.

Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy Fig. 2. Images of MPs identified from human lung tissue samples. A, B, C and D
Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy Fig. 2. Images of MPs identified from human lung tissue samples. A, B, C and D = (A = PET) (B = PUR) (C = Resin) (D = PAN). E and F = MPs identified within blanks. (E = PS) (F = PP). Corresponding spectra included in Fig. S2.

Polymer Types and particle Characteristics Observed | Results

In total 12 polymer types were identified, with the most abundant being polypropylene (PP) at 23% and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) at 18%; coincidentally the most common plastics used to make surgical and N95 covid face masks, which have become a daily accessory for most throughout the COVID 19 pandemic (more info further down):

Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy Fig. 1. Polymer types (A) and shapes (B) of the MPs identified within lung tissue samples.
Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy Fig. 1. Polymer types (A) and shapes (B) of the MPs identified within lung tissue samples.

“A total of 12 polymer types were identified in the tissue samples, as detailed in Fig. 1A. PP (9, 23%) and PET (7, 18%) were the most abundant (Fig. 1A). All MPs identified within tissue samples were fibre (19, 49%), fragment (17, 43%), or film (3, 8%), (Figs. 1B, 2). MP particles identified within the tissue samples had a mean particle length of 223.10 ± 436.16 μm (range 12–2475 μm), and a mean particle width of 22.21 ± 20.32 μm (range 4–88 μm) (Fig. 3A).”

Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy

Particle Sizes Found Where Science Says They Can’t Reach

The study showed 11 microplastics were found in the upper part of the lung, 7 in the mid part, and 21 in the lower part of the lung:

Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy Fig 4
Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy Fig. 4. Particle number (total MPs detected with no account taken for MPs found in controls) and polymer type of MPs identified within human lung tissue samples, assigned to their lung region.

“In total, 39 MPs were identified within 11 of the 13 lung tissue samples, with an unadjusted average of 1.42 ± 1.50 MP/g of tissue…MPs were identified within all regions of the lung categorised as upper (0.80 ± 0.96 MP/g), middle/lingular (0.41 ± 0.37 MP/g), and lower (3.12 ± 1.30 MP/g) region.”

Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy

This was unexpected because the airways are smaller in the lower parts of the lungs, therefore researchers thought particles of these sizes would be filtered out before reaching the lower airways:

Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy - Fig. 3. Polymer size dimensions and type of each MP identified within (A) human lung tissue samples and (B) ‘procedural blank’ (triangles) and ‘laboratory blank’ (circles) samples. Red line represents the assumed inhalable size limit regardless of density.
Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy – Fig. 3. Polymer size dimensions and type of each MP identified within (A) human lung tissue samples and (B) ‘procedural blank’ (triangles) and ‘laboratory blank’ (circles) samples. Red line represents the assumed inhalable size limit regardless of density.

“We did not expect to find the highest number of particles in the lower regions of the lungs, or particles of the sizes we found. This is surprising as the airways are smaller in the lower parts of the lungs and we would have expected particles of these sizes to be filtered out or trapped before getting this deep into the lungs”

Laura Sadofsky, lead author on the paper

Another study confirmed that particle size of MPs found in these tissue samples (from 12 to 2475 μm for length and 4–88 μm for width), should not be able to enter the alveolar region of the lung with it’s small size (~540 μm diameter and 1410 μm long):

“According to Donaldson et al. (1993), only particles with a physical diameter smaller than 3 μm can enter the alveolar region of the lung (Donaldson et al., 1993). The alveolar duct is reported in the literature as being ~540 μm diameter and 1410 μm long (Horsfield et al., 1971). Particles of a size ranging from 12 to 2475 μm for length and 4–88 μm for width were detected within lung samples in this study, in theory, too large to be present, yet present nonetheless.”

Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy

Introduction

I won’t include all of the introduction, but I did want to point out one thing…During the pandemic n95 and surgical masks have been commonplace as part of the “public health measures”. The argument for mask safety is that these fibers generally aren’t inhaled beyond what is considered safe…however with untrained people re-using and wearing masks longer then intended, that fiber structure breaks down and is inhaled, primarily due to improper use of such face masks. This hypothesis in fact supported by data from another study, which is cited in the introduction of the study:

“Upon environmental release, plastics are exposed to oxidation, mechanical stress and biological action, resulting in embrittlement and fragmentation, forming MPs, and eventually nanoplastics (NPs) (<1 μm), as well as release into the environment in their primary form (Hidalgo-Ruz et al., 2012).”

Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy

In other words face mask structure degrades over time, especially with use beyond design specifications…which with the untrained population wearing face masks nearly 24/7 is likely a common occurrence. This raises the concern during this pandemic of the cost of face masks, when we know the high concentrations of airborne MPs now often observed, are already cause for concern:

“The mounting concern surrounding airborne MPs stems from the unknown polymer types, levels of exposure, and consequences of their inhalation. MP characteristics such as size, shape, vectored absorbed pollutants and pathogens, as well as plastic monomer or additive leaching, have been highlighted as potential promoters of cytotoxicity (Wright and Kelly, 2017).”

Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy

Discussion

In the discussion section, they note that males had higher levels of MPs found in their lungs vs females…the hypothesize this may be due to female’s having “significantly smaller airways”; more research is required:

“Interestingly, tissue from male donors contained significantly higher levels of unadjusted MP (2.09 ± 1.54 MP/g) compared to females (0.36 ± 0.50 MP/g), with all samples from males containing MPs but two out of five samples from females showing no MPs. We hypothesise that this is due female airways being significantly smaller than the airways of males (Dominelli et al., 2018)”

Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy

They suggest that the particle sizes which can be inhaled and make it into the lower airway should be revised; I wholeheartedly agree if you find particle sizes that science says can’t be there, then the science if wrong and should be revised, or there are other factors in play that been to be included:

“There are limited recent studies giving evidence of particle sizes and deposition in the lungs. It could be that there may be a pre-conceived assumption about the particle sizes which are inhalable and able to make it into the lower airway, but in this study, and others (Pauly et al., 1998; Amato-Lourenço et al., 2021) particles bigger than these are being reported, and therefore, it may be time to revisit these numbers and investigate what sizes can be inhaled. Interestingly, even after LOD and LOQ were applied, the PP identified in sample 1.1 was above the size limit which is generally thought of as inhalable.”

Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy

They also cite a study documenting the inflammatory response of MPs in the lungs, but no studies have specifically analyzed the biological effects of the MP particle size found in the lung tissues of this study; more research is needed:

“While the fate of particles entering the lung, and their resulting biological effects in terms of inflammation responses, are well established for ultrafine particulates in the NP or PM10 size range (Oberdörster et al., 1994; Kreyling et al., 2006), the corresponding information is currently unavailable for the MP size range of particles observed here, highlighting a serious gap in the knowledge.”

Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy

Ultimately I agree that more research needs to be done, and quite honestly should have been done before mandating face masks on the global population…

N95 Mask | Material Composition

How are N95 masks made? by health-desk.org

Experts outlined the primary material composition and structure of N95 masks in an article on health-desk.org…Most N95 masks are composed of “polypropylene”:

“Most N95 masks are made of a material called polypropylene; a synthetic plastic fiber made out of fossil fuels like oil.”

How are N95 masks made? by health-desk.org

In the article, experts also explain how N95 masks are manufactured – thousands polypropylene fibers thinner than a strand of human hair are melted together to create a “cotton candy” web-like filter, which is sometimes given an electrostatic charge:

“To make the polypropylene filters, thousands of nonwoven fibers are melted together in a process called ‘melt blow extrusion.’ Each fiber is thinner than a strand of hair. Each thread passes through a hole on a machine to create a layer of fibers that has the consistency of cotton candy. Hot air is then applied to the masks, which fuses the fibers together tightly enough that 95% of microbes can’t get through, but air still can. The result of this process is a web-like filter…

How are N95 masks made? by health-desk.org

Although N95 masks can sometimes also contain other materials such as “aluminum, polyurethane, steel and rubber”, most masks approved by national public health agencies or approved by the WHO utilize “polypropylene as the main material and filter”:

“theoretically, N95 masks can be made from many materials but most masks approved by national public health agencies or procured/evaluated by the World Health Organization use polypropylene as the main material and filter.”

How are N95 masks made? by health-desk.org

Surgical Mask | Material Composition

In another article on health-desk.org, Experts outlined the primary material composition and structure of blue surgical masks…Most surgical masks are composed of polypropylene”, but also sometimes polyethylene or other plastics:

“The material most commonly used to make these masks is polypropylene—a type of fabric made from a “thermoplastic” polymer (meaning that it’s easy to work with and shape at high temperatures). Blue surgical masks can also be made of polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene, or polyester— all of which are types of fabrics derived from thermoplastic polymers.”

What are blue surgical masks made of and is the material safe? by health-desk.org

The experts also stated that some surgical masks may contain traces of formaldehyde and bronopol (more info), highly toxic compounds, which they claim only cause health effects such as contact dermatitis, in people whom are susceptible to this condition due to “sensitive skin, allergies” or you guessed it “very long-term mask wearing”, which during the pandemic just happens to describe the majority of the global population:

“However, some literature as well as reports from some surgical mask manufacturers have shown that blue surgical masks might include traces of formaldehyde and bronopol. These trace impurities of formaldehyde and bronopol have led to cases of contact dermatitis; however, these cases are not common, and have particularly been documented amongst individuals who are already susceptible to this condition either due to sensitive skin, allergies, or very long-term mask wearing (such as healthcare workers).”

What are blue surgical masks made of and is the material safe? by health-desk.org

Besides contact dermatitis they state some surgical face masks can be sprayed with polytetrafluoroethylen (PTFE), the same polymer that makes the Teflon non-stick coating on kitchen wear, which they claim only poses a health risk if heated to extremely high temperatures of 300-400 degrees:

However with these disposable surgical masks now often being (Incorrectly) re-used and worn far longer then they are designed for, the “web-like” structure breaks down and we now know the fibers can be inhaled…I suspect the chemicals in these fibers lodged in the lungs, would be absorbed into the blood stream and pose similar if not more deleterious negative health effects.

Conclusion

During the COVID 19 pandemic face masks have become a commonplace accessory for many people around the world, either trough mandates or personal choice. However the widespread use of N95 mechanical respirator and surgical COVID face masks is both unprecedented and untested, posing unknown risks to the environment and the health of individuals. This study reveals the presence of microplastics, mainly polypropylene (23%) and polyethylene terephthalate (18%); coincidentally the main materials used in COVID face masks, in living lung tissue for the first time in history, and brings to light the potential for negative long term health effects of individuals who participated in this experimental public health measure. Although the wide-spread use of microplastics in other products, is definitely a contributing factor in the concentrations of these pollutants in the air…the use of face masks and their direct interaction with your lungs brings them to the forefront of concern. In light of this study, scientists call for more research to be preformed, in order to ascertain the health implications of widespread use of microplastics in numerous products…and of particular relevance…the unprecedented use of synthetic face masks as a public health measure, throughout the COVID 19 pandemic.

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