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11 October 2019

If plastic particles are so small that you can’t see them, does that mean they can’t hurt you? The jury is out.

It’s a plastic world. Although more people are becoming aware of the environmental risks of plastic use, scientists are increasingly putting under the microscope the question of health risk. In particular when plastics break down.

When that happens, plastics degrade to a scale measured in micrometres and nanometres, so small they are invisible to the naked eye. These are becoming more prevalent in our everyday environment.

A group of scientists are investigating the potential toxicity of these minute nanoplastic particles. They are led by experts from the MacDiarmid Institute and University of Auckland in New Zealand, with scientists from Flinders University and Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

Studies have shown that nanoplastics can enter the body through the use of cosmetics like lipstick or everyday items like shampoo. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has even found these particles in drinking water.

Interestingly, the nanoparticles can evade barriers and defence mechanisms in our bodies. But what happens next?

Scientists are currently studying how plasma proteins can be impacted by these minute foreign incursions. These proteins transport vitamins and minerals and assist the body’s immune system (among other things).

Dr Jitendra Mata and Dr Andrew Whitten from ANSTO are among the group of international experts studying the interaction, using unique research facilities.

Neutron scattering instruments unique to ANSTO in Australia, were used to investigate the nanoplastics. They looked at the layers of protein (called a ‘corona’) that forms around a nanoparticle that enters the body,

The physical and chemical properties of a corona are important in determining how toxic it might be. Researchers found that the particle size and pH levels affected the nature of the corona, which could contribute to its toxicity.

This latest research published in Bioconjugate Chemistry will help the scientific community better understand the risk involved with nanoplastics in humans and their potential toxicity.

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