Microplastics and Cardiovascular Risk: New Data On Their Hidden Danger

Microplastics permeate the environment and our bodies, posing a heightened risk for cardiovascular diseases and mortality, reveals recent research. These minuscule plastic fragments accumulating in the bloodstream are now linked with increased incidents of heart attacks, strokes, and premature deaths.

The condition known as atherosclerosis involves the thickening of arterial walls due to plaque accumulation, impeding blood flow and elevating the risk of cardiovascular ailments. Typically composed of cholesterol, cellular waste, calcium, fatty substances, and a clotting protein named fibrin, plaque now appears to also harbor microplastics and nanoplastics, as uncovered in a study focusing on around 300 individuals with carotid artery plaque. This artery, crucial for brain blood supply, showed that those with plastic-laden plaque had a significantly higher probability of suffering from heart attacks or strokes, or dying within three years, according to findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine on March 7.

While the leaching chemicals from plastics are known to disrupt hormonal and other bodily functions, this study marks the first instance where the particles themselves are directly associated with human health detriments, states Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and epidemiologist at Boston College, who is renowned for his research on toxic chemicals but was not involved in this study. He anticipates that this revelation will drive further research into the potential harms plastics might inflict on other organs such as the brain, kidneys, and reproductive systems.

The study investigated adults undergoing carotid endarterectomy, a procedure to remove plaque buildup in the carotid artery, which if dislodged, can lead to strokes by obstructing smaller arteries. Post-surgery, the plaques were examined for plastics, with significant findings of polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride, common types of plastics. Electron microscopy revealed these particles, with jagged edges, within macrophages in the plaques. Macrophages are white blood cells that engulf and destroy pathogens and other foreign matter.

Following the surgery, 257 patients were monitored for up to three years to track incidents of heart attacks, strokes, or death. Those with micro and nanoplastics in their plaques were about 4.5 times more likely to experience these health events.

The potential linkage between microplastics and cardiovascular diseases could stem from the inflammation caused by macrophages responding to foreign particles in the plaques, suggests the study’s cardiologist, Giuseppe Paolisso. This inflammation could make the plaques more prone to breaking off and entering the bloodstream.

While the exact mechanisms by which microplastics contribute to cardiovascular and other diseases remain unclear, their ubiquity in the body and potential to cause harm is increasingly evident, signaling a pressing need for continued research and policy intervention.

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