Humans are potentially inhaling a credit card-sized amount of harmful microplastics on a weekly basis, and new research published in the journal Physics of Fluids reveals where these toxic chemicals are congregating in the body.

Microplastics Are All Around Us

It is unclear how microplastics impact our health. There is evidence that microplastics can kill human cells, and they cause fertility problems and bowel inflammation in mice. Another problem is that microplastics can host viruses and bacteria as well as hazardous chemicals.

Scientists determined in 2019 that 16.2 bits of microplastics travel into our airways every 60 minutes. This equals about a credit card amount of microplastics every seven days, reports Live Science. Microplastics are small pieces of debris that are less than 5 millimeters long. They consist of debris from consumer goods and industrial waste.

Microplastics are all around us—in the ocean, in the atmosphere, and even in bottled water. Some microplastics are the result of environmental disasters. For example, in 1997 a shipping crate with 4.8 million LEGO pieces spilled into the ocean near the United Kingdom, causing long-lasting consequences. An estimated 3,178,807 pieces drifted around the world, and people are still finding those LEGO pieces nearly three decades following the incident.

Global environmental problems infographic

Then there is the The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is floating in the middle of the ocean between Hawaii and California. It contains plastic debris and it has become the home for all types of sea life, including anemones, worms, and crustaceans. However, this is not something to celebrate. Certain species that typically stay near coastal areas may become invasive when traveling to new homes.

But How Do They Impact Our Health?

How toxic microplastics move within the human respiratory system and their effect on our health has not been the subject of much research until now. Recent studies indicate that microplastics can cause significant health issues. In the new Physics of Fluids journal, researchers used computer modeling to examine the effects of breathing in microplastics and where these tiny particles deposit themselves.

First author, Mohammad S. Islam, a senior research fellow at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, said in a statement. “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. For the first time, in 2022, studies found microplastics deep in human airways, which raises the concern of serious respiratory health hazards.”

Scientists examined spherical-, tetrahedral-, and cylindrical-shaped plastic particles circulating through the respiratory system. They concluded that the largest pieces were most likely to get stuck in the upper airways such as the nasal cavity or back of the throat. These large pieces were 5.56 microns or one-seventieth the diameter of a human hair.

Scientists plan on determining next how the debris winds up in our lungs, examining factors such as humidity and temperature.

By Noelle Talmon, contributor for


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