Microplastics could cause us a variety of health problems and pose grave challenges to health care provision.
A team of Dutch researchers has recently discovered microplastics in human blood, revealing a stark warning about the dangers of these minute particles, which could make their way into our organs and brain.
Microplastics are pieces of plastic small enough to be invisible to the naked eye and they have been found in the soil, air, water, and food around the world. Scientists have hypothesized that these microplastic particles could be harming our health.
Now, for the first time, scientists have confirmed that these plastic particles have also made their way into our bloodstream. The team’s findings, along with other research on microplastic and human health, suggest that a serious medical crisis could be on the horizon.
Over the next few years, healthcare providers may need to reinvent themselves to meet the needs of patients with microplastic-related medical conditions.
The Dutch team examined blood samples from 22 healthy, anonymous volunteers and discovered microplastics in nearly 80% of them. Half of these blood samples showed traces of PET plastic, commonly used to make drink bottles, and more than a third contained polystyrene, used for disposable food containers and packaging peanuts.
The team also found traces of PMMA, a transparent thermoplastic also known as acrylic or acrylic glass and the microplastics may have entered the body through the air, food, water, personal hygiene products, and tattoo ink.
How do microplastics affect human health?
Ingested microplastics, it is suggested, could be impacting human health by damaging cells and inducing inflammatory or immune reactions. Many plastics also contain and leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that can disturb the body’s hormone systems, potentially exacerbating or causing conditions like diabetes, reproductive orders, and hypothyroidism.
In practice, microplastics could be responsible for a wide range of conditions, neurotoxicity, and metabolic disturbances, meaning that just about every part of the body could be vulnerable to the effects of microplastic pollution.
Further research will likely be necessary to determine how microplastics may affect human health and to what extent the average person has microplastics in their bloodstream and body. The current evidence suggests, however, that microplastics are likely impacting our health and that, with long-term exposure, microplastics could cause serious chronic health conditions.
Right now, healthcare systems around the world are undergoing major changes. In response to the COVID-19 crisis and the availability of new healthcare technology, many organizations are digitizing their systems by offering services like telemedicine, leveraging “smart” medical technology, and taking advantage of analytics tools like artificial intelligence.
These changes could help organizations respond to the healthcare challenges that may come from microplastic pollution. The COVID-19 pandemic has given everyone a sense of how healthcare institutions respond to acute crises, like the spread of a highly infectious disease.
However, if microplastics have the potential to cause serious chronic conditions, new healthcare strategies may be necessary.
Are healthcare systems ready for a chronic disease crisis?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, chronic disease accounts for 90% of annual healthcare expenses in the U.S. Many common chronic diseases are also becoming more common.
A shift from acute disease to chronic disease has been ongoing since the 1950s, but, as many healthcare experts note, the country’s healthcare institutions haven’t always responded well to changing patient needs.
It’s possible that microplastic exposure will drive the development of chronic diseases in the future. It may even be possible that microplastics are already partially responsible for rising rates of chronic disease. If so, microplastics could soon require a major transformation in healthcare – one that adapts existing systems to better meet the needs of patients that may require long-term care.
Reforms, policies, and technology that help healthcare providers care for patients with chronic diseases will become invaluable. For example, an integrated and patient-centric healthcare approach, one that can transcend specific illnesses and conditions, may allow healthcare providers to more effectively support a large number of patients with various chronic diseases.
New technology, like smart health wearables and electronic health records, could also support healthcare providers. The use of telemedicine could both increase healthcare accessibility and streamline work for providers.
Many experts, however, often propose tackling the chronic disease crisis with behavioral interventions or programs that help individuals manage conditions – like obesity and addiction – that lead to chronic disease. Because microplastics are so unavoidable, it may be challenging or impossible for patients to reasonably minimize microplastic exposure.
As a result, non-behavioral interventions and institutional changes may be necessary for providers to manage microplastic-associated health conditions. The potential microplastic healthcare crisis is also likely to coincide with a number of other emerging health crises like post-COVID conditions, physician burnout, and rising healthcare costs.
The need for broad-based actions
Changes from outside the industry may be necessary to support these institutions. Both people and organizations can take steps to limit the creation of microplastics, for example, potentially reducing the impact that microplastic exposure may have on health.
Government or private support for both patients with chronic illness and the providers that treat them could help offset some of the economic effects of chronic health conditions and ensure patients have access to treatment, even when the cost of treatment and challenges caused by their condition could create significant barriers to healthcare access.
Microplastics may be on track to cause major crises in the healthcare systems. By driving an increase in chronic conditions, microplastics could force significant changes in how providers offer care.
In the near future, new technology, new policies, and new healthcare strategies may be necessary to manage a rise in chronic diseases driven by microplastics.