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Microplastics stick around in the airways, posing health risks

A new study shows how microplastics collect in the nasal cavity and back of the throat and cause health risks

Microplastics collect in the nasal cavity and back of throat. (Unsplash)
Microplastics collect in the nasal cavity and back of throat. (Unsplash)

It’s well-known that while plastic pollution is harming Earth, it is also triggering health risks for people. According to Science Daily, humans might be inhaling about 16.2 bits of microplastic every hour, which is equivalent to a credit card over a week. A new study explored the movement of microplastics to show how they tend to collect in the nasal cavity or back of the throat.

Microplastics are tiny debris in the environment generated from the breaking down of plastic products which generally have toxic pollutants and chemicals. As inhaling microplastics can cause serious health risks, the researchers conducted a study to improve understanding of how they travel in the respiratory system to help in the prevention and treatment of respiratory diseases. The findings were published in the journal Physics of Fluids.

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Researchers from the University of Technology Sydney, Western Sydney University, Urmia University, Islamic Azad University, the University of Comilla, and the Queensland University of Technology developed a computational fluid dynamics model to analyse microplastic transport and deposition in the upper airway, according to the media statement by AIP Publishing.

“Millions of tons of these microplastic particles have been found in water, air, and soil. Global microplastic production is surging, and the density of microplastics in the air is increasing significantly,” said author Mohammad S. Islam in the statement. In 2022, studies found microplastics deep in human airways for the first time. This raised the concern of serious respiratory health hazards.

The researchers examined the movement of microplastics with different shapes (spherical, tetrahedral, and cylindrical) and sizes (1.6, 2.56, and 5.56 microns) as well as under slow and fast breathing conditions. The findings showed that they were likely to be found in the nasal cavity and oropharynx, or back of the throat, according to the statement.

“The complicated and highly asymmetric anatomical shape of the airway and complex flow behaviour in the nasal cavity and oropharynx causes the microplastics to deviate from the flow pathline and deposit in those areas,” said Islam in the statement. Islam further added that the flow speed, particle inertia, and asymmetric anatomy impact the deposition and concentration.

Through the study, the researchers highlight the real concern of exposure to and inhalation of microplastics, specifically in places that experience high levels of plastic pollution. They also hope that the findings can help improve targeted drug delivery devices and health risk assessment, according to the statement.

The study shows that there is a need for greater awareness about the health impacts of microplastics in the air we breathe.

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