In a groundbreaking discovery, researchers have uncovered a startling presence of microplastics within the arterial plaque of humans, marking a significant leap in our understanding of the potential health impacts of these pervasive particles.

Microplastics and their even smaller counterparts, nanoplastics, have permeated various ecosystems, from oceans to our very food sources and even human breast milk. Despite growing awareness of their environmental threat, the precise health ramifications of these minuscule particles remain shrouded in uncertainty.

However, a recent study, hailed as a milestone in scientific inquiry, has shed light on a previously unrecognized danger. The research, published in The New England Journal of Medicine this month, reveals a correlation between the presence of microplastics in arterial plaque and heightened risks of severe cardiovascular events, including heart attacks and strokes.

“This discovery serves as a poignant wake-up call,” remarked Dr. Rick Ferraro, a general cardiology fellow at Johns Hopkins Medicine, who was not involved in the study but offered insights to Healthline. “While it’s crucial to note that this study establishes correlation rather than causation, the mere detection of microplastics within arterial plaque raises profound concerns. Moreover, the observed association with subsequent cardiac complications is undeniably striking.”

Indeed, this study underscores the urgent need for further investigation into the intricate relationship between microplastics and human health. As our understanding deepens, it is increasingly clear that confronting the microplastic menace demands concerted efforts from both the scientific community and society at large.

60% of patients had microplastics in arteries

Dr. Raffaele Marfella, a distinguished professor of medicine at Università degli Studi della Campania Luigi Vanvitelli in Italy and the lead author of the study, highlighted two pivotal discoveries that emerged from their investigation. Firstly, they successfully pinpointed the presence of nanoplastics within atherosclerotic plaques. Secondly, they uncovered a significant correlation between patients harboring atherosclerotic plaques contaminated by nanoplastics and a heightened incidence of cardiovascular events, such as myocardial infarction, stroke, or mortality, compared to those without nanoplastics in their plaques, he revealed to Healthline.

To conduct their research, Marfella and his dedicated team delved into samples of arterial plaque obtained from over 250 patients who underwent a carotid endarterectomy, a surgical procedure aimed at removing plaque from the carotid arteries. Their analysis revealed the presence of polyethylene microplastics in nearly 60% of the patients, while polyvinyl chloride microplastics were detected in approximately 12% of them.

Polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride, ubiquitous forms of plastic widely utilized in various applications ranging from bottles to construction materials, emerged as prominent constituents within the arterial plaques under scrutiny.

Tracking the health outcomes of these patients over an average span of 34 months post-surgery unveiled a startling statistic: individuals with microplastics embedded within their arterial plaques were 4.5 times more likely to encounter severe cardiovascular events, encompassing heart attacks, strokes, or fatalities, in comparison to their counterparts devoid of plastic infiltration.

Nevertheless, it’s imperative to acknowledge that the study does not establish causation; thus, it refrains from definitively attributing the observed health outcomes to microplastics or other factors.

Dr. Aaron Aday, the director of vascular medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who was not directly involved in the research, offered sobering reflections on the study’s implications. “While it’s crucial to note that the participants in this study were already predisposed to higher cardiovascular risk due to their requirement for carotid plaque surgery, the pronounced escalation in downstream cardiovascular risk among those with microplastics in their plaque is both disquieting and thought-provoking,” he remarked.

How plastic can end up in plaque

Every year, the world churns out an astounding 380 million tons of plastic, a testament to its ubiquitous presence in modern society. The allure of plastic lies in its remarkable durability, a quality that has propelled its widespread adoption across diverse industries. However, as plastics inevitably degrade, they release minuscule particles into the environment, setting the stage for the proliferation of microplastics and nanoplastics.

Measuring smaller than 5 millimeters and 1000 nanometers, respectively, these diminutive plastic fragments have infiltrated virtually every corner of the globe, even infiltrating seemingly remote locales. In a startling revelation, a study conducted in 2022 unveiled the presence of plastics in breast milk, while a subsequent investigation in 2023 unearthed significant quantities of microplastics within Missouri’s secluded Cliff Cave, closed off to the public for three decades.

The extent of plastic pollution extends far beyond terrestrial boundaries, permeating the depths of the Mariana Trench and other remote regions of the deep ocean, reaching depths of tens of thousands of feet below the surface.

Not content with merely infiltrating natural environments, microplastics have insinuated themselves into the very fabric of our sustenance, contaminating our food supply and water sources. Their omnipresence is further underscored by their discovery in the air we breathe, completing a disconcerting trifecta of environmental intrusion.

This pervasive presence of microplastics has sparked mounting concern among researchers regarding its potential ramifications for human health. Dr. Aaron Aday, reflecting on this growing apprehension, remarked, “Microplastics and nanoplastics possess the capacity to infiltrate our circulatory system, making their way into various organs, including the heart. While animal studies have hinted at their detrimental effects on cardiovascular health, the absence of large-scale human studies has left a significant void in our understanding—until now.

Understanding the health impacts of microplastics

While the recent study published this month is undeniably thought-provoking, experts caution that there remains a considerable amount of groundwork to be laid before definitive conclusions can be drawn regarding the impact of microplastics on heart health.

Healthline reached out to several experts, who emphasized the necessity of conducting large-scale studies to comprehensively assess the potential health effects of microplastics. Additionally, they highlighted the critical need for more robust demographic and environmental data among study participants.

Dr. Ferraro stressed the importance of addressing significant disparities in environmental exposures and their resulting health impacts. He pointed out that the current study overlooked factors such as geographic location and demographic details, which are essential for understanding the broader implications of microplastic contamination.

Echoing these sentiments, Dr. Aday underscored the imperative for replication studies involving a more diverse pool of participants and spanning different geographical regions. He noted that the study participants were predominantly from a single location and shared the same ethnicity, limiting the generalizability of the findings. “To truly grasp the cardiovascular risks associated with microplastics and nanoplastics, we need to expand our scope to encompass various populations and environmental contexts,” Aday emphasized.

Indeed, as the pursuit of understanding the intricate relationship between microplastics and human health unfolds, it becomes increasingly evident that a multifaceted approach, incorporating diverse populations and comprehensive data collection, is essential to elucidate the full scope of this pressing issue.

The bottom line

A revolutionary new study has unveiled a startling revelation: microplastics and nanoplastics have infiltrated human arterial plaque.

The implications are profound: the presence of these minuscule plastic particles within arterial plaque is correlated with a staggering 4.5-fold increase in the risk of experiencing dire cardiovascular events such as heart attacks, strokes, and mortality.

However, while the correlation is undeniable, the study falls short of establishing a causal link between the presence of microplastics and these grave cardiovascular outcomes. Hence, further research is imperative to delve deeper into the intricate mechanisms underlying this association and ascertain whether microplastics play a direct role in precipitating cardiovascular diseases.

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