Tiny terrors: the invisible threat of microplastics

clear disposable bottle on black surface

This segment of the All-In podcast significantly heightened my awareness about microplastics. While I was already aware of their dangers and knew to be cautious, this episode has made me even more mindful about avoiding the purchase of beverages in plastic containers. The discussion begins at 01:25:09.

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So in this episode they highlight two studies

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The document titled “Nanoplastics affect the inflammatory cytokine release by primary human monocytes and dendritic cells” from ScienceDirect explores the impact of nanoplastics on human health, specifically how exposure to nanoplastics influences inflammatory processes in human immune cells. The study examines the effect of nanoplastics, which are tiny plastic particles less than a micrometer in size, on primary human monocytes and dendritic cells. These cells were exposed to nanoplastics of various shapes, sizes, and types in a controlled laboratory setting.

Key findings include:

  • Irregular shaped nanoplastics, especially those made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), induced a stronger inflammatory response by releasing more cytokines compared to spherical nanoplastics.
  • The study suggests that the physical properties of nanoplastics, such as shape and polymer type, significantly affect their potential to trigger inflammatory responses in human immune cells.
  • It also points out that the health implications of nanoplastics cannot be generalized, as their impact varies based on their physical characteristics.

In simpler terms, this research highlights the potential health risks posed by nanoplastics, showing that their shape and material type can influence how our immune cells respond to them, with some types causing more inflammation than others. This inflammation is a natural response by the body’s immune system but can lead to negative health effects if it is chronic or excessive. The study emphasizes the need for more research into the health effects of nanoplastics due to their varying properties and the increasing presence of these particles in the environment.

PVC, is used in a variety of applications, including construction (for pipes, window frames, etc.), healthcare, and packaging, but it is less commonly used for bottles due to concerns related to health and environmental issues.

PVC can release harmful chemicals under certain conditions, and its disposal and recycling pose environmental risks. Consequently, its use in food and beverage containers is highly regulated within the EU and many other regions. The exact percentage of plastic bottles made from PVC in the EU is minimal and difficult to quantify precisely without current data, but it is significantly lower compared to PET and other plastics used for similar purposes.

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The article “Microplastics and Nanoplastics in Atheromas and Cardiovascular Events” from the New England Journal of Medicine investigates the potential risk that microplastics and nanoplastics (MNPs) pose for cardiovascular diseases in humans. Previously, this risk was primarily studied in animal models, but direct evidence in humans was lacking. The study was conducted by analyzing carotid artery plaque specimens from patients undergoing carotid endarterectomy for asymptomatic carotid artery disease. Researchers used several techniques to detect the presence of MNPs in these plaque specimens and assessed the relationship between MNPs and cardiovascular events such as heart attacks, strokes, or death.

Key findings include:

  • Microplastics, particularly polyethylene, were found in the carotid artery plaque of a significant number of patients. Some patients also had detectable levels of polyvinyl chloride in their plaque.
  • The presence of MNPs within atheromas (plaque buildups in arteries) was associated with a higher risk of major cardiovascular events.
  • This study provides evidence that humans with carotid artery plaque containing MNPs are at an increased risk of experiencing a heart attack, stroke, or death from any cause over a follow-up period of approximately 34 months.

In simpler terms, this research highlights the potential health risks associated with microplastics and nanoplastics, showing that their presence in artery plaque is linked to an increased risk of serious heart-related problems. This study underscores the need for further research into the impact of environmental pollutants like microplastics on human health, especially concerning cardiovascular diseases.


polyethylene is extensively used in the European Union (EU), as it is around the world. Polyethylene is the most common plastic and comes in several forms, including high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and low-density polyethylene (LDPE), each with its specific applications. It is used in a wide range of products and industries due to its versatility, durability, and relatively low cost. Some common applications include packaging materials (such as plastic bags, films, and containers), pipes and fittings, toys, and household goods.

The EU has been actively working on environmental issues, including plastic waste and recycling. Regulations and directives aim to increase the recycling of plastics and reduce plastic waste, impacting how polyethylene is used and recycled within the EU. The European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy is one initiative aimed at transforming the way plastic products are designed, used, produced, and recycled in the EU. Despite these efforts, the demand for polyethylene remains high due to its essential role in various applications.

The EU’s approach to managing plastic, including polyethylene, involves reducing single-use plastics, increasing recycling rates, and encouraging the development of more sustainable materials. However, polyethylene’s utility and functionality continue to make it a widely used material across the continent.


MNPs, or Magnetic Nanoparticles, are a type of nanoparticle that can be manipulated using magnetic fields. These particles are typically made from magnetic materials such as iron, cobalt, nickel, or their oxides, and they have unique magnetic properties due to their small size, often ranging from 1 to 100 nanometers. The small size of MNPs gives them a high surface area to volume ratio, which significantly influences their physical and chemical properties, making them useful for a wide range of applications.

Magnetic nanoparticles are used in various fields and applications, including:

  1. Biomedicine: MNPs are used for targeted drug delivery, where they can be directed to a specific site in the body using a magnetic field, reducing side effects and improving treatment efficacy. They are also used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) as contrast agents to improve the quality of images, and in hyperthermia therapy for cancer treatment, where the nanoparticles are heated and used to selectively kill tumor cells.
  2. Environmental remediation: MNPs can be used to remove pollutants from water. Their surface can be modified to bind with specific contaminants, and once bound, the particles (along with the contaminants) can be easily removed from the water using a magnetic field.
  3. Catalysis: Magnetic nanoparticles can act as catalysts or support for catalysts in chemical reactions. Their magnetic properties allow for easy recovery and reuse of the catalysts, making processes more efficient and environmentally friendly.
  4. Data storage: The high magnetic coercivity of certain MNPs makes them suitable for recording media in data storage devices, although this application is more challenging and subject to ongoing research.

In the European Union (EU), the use of magnetic nanoparticles is subject to regulations concerning chemicals, nanomaterials, and their applications, especially in biomedicine and environmental protection. The EU has been at the forefront of regulating nanotechnology and nanomaterials, with frameworks like REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals) and specific regulations for cosmetics, food, and medical devices that ensure the safe use of nanomaterials, including MNPs.

Research and development in the field of magnetic nanoparticles are active in the EU, with numerous projects and collaborations in academia and industry focusing on innovative applications and ensuring safety and environmental sustainability. The use of MNPs in the EU reflects a balance between harnessing their potential benefits and addressing environmental and health concerns associated with nanomaterials.

To end:

Imagine tiny pieces of plastic, so small that you might not even see them. These are called microplastics, and they’re everywhere – in the ocean, in the soil, and even in the air! They come from bigger plastic items that break down over time, like water bottles or plastic bags that aren’t thrown away properly.

Here’s why they can be a problem:

  1. Tiny but troublesome: Even though they’re small, microplastics can hurt animals and plants. Fish in the ocean might think microplastics are food and eat them. This isn’t good for the fish or for animals (including people) that eat fish.
  2. A sticky problem: Microplastics can carry harmful chemicals. When animals eat microplastics, these bad chemicals can get into their bodies and make them sick.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Use less plastic: Try to use things that aren’t made of plastic, like a reusable water bottle or cloth shopping bags instead of the single-use plastic ones.
  2. Recycle right: When you do use plastic, make sure to recycle it properly so it doesn’t end up in nature and break down into microplastics.

It’s understandable that many people use plastic items because they’re affordable and convenient, but after learning about the impact of microplastics on our environment and health, it’s clear we need to think more carefully about our choices. Consider using reusable items like steel or glass bottles. Also, filtering your water with products like a LifeStraw can help ensure you’re drinking clean water without contributing to plastic pollution.