Does plastic make us sick? Strong decline in growth of the respiratory tract

Amsterdam, 22 October 2019 – An average household generates about twenty kilos of domestic dust a year. It is estimated that six kilos of this dust consist of microplastics. We wear plastic clothes and we breathe in microplastics all day long. What is the effect of synthetic microfibres on our lungs? The research group of Professor Barbro Melgert of the University of Groningen uses cultivated mini lungs to answer this question. The short-term research is financed by ZonMw.

The smallest particles penetrate the furthest

The air we breathe enters the lungs through the windpipe. The lungs are connected to the trachea by many branches, the bronchi. At the end of the bronchi are the alveoli. Particles smaller than 10 μm penetrate the bronchi and smaller than 4 μm even reach the pulmonary vesicles. The research group grows mini lungs from lung cells (alveolar mini lung) with which experiments can be carried out, such as the addition of microplastics such as nylon and polyester. The advantage of this method is that no subjects are needed.

Nylon fibers hinder the growth of mini lungs

Microplastics of nylon and polyester are common in household fabrics and come from synthetic clothing, carpets, and furniture. Researcher Fransien van Dijk presented the first preliminary research results early this month during the Plastic Health Summit. Defense cells in the lungs (macrophages) mainly attack the nylon fibers, as it turns out, but leave polyester untouched. Van Dijk: ‘If we add nylon microfibres, we see that there is an enormous decrease in the growth of the mini lungs. When we add polyester, we see a minimal effect. This effect applies in particular to the development of the respiratory tract. The research group did not expect to discover such a clear effect in advance.

Watch Fransien van Dijk’s full talk here!