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Micro and Nanoplastics in the Body Increase the Risk for Heart Attacks and Strokes

Publication Date: 4/7/2024 9:00 AM

A recent study has found that micro and nanoplastic particle accumulation in the human body is directly correlated to the risk for cardiovascular disease and strokes. A cardiovascular expert from Rambam Health Care Campus (Rambam) in Haifa, Israel provides insight on the importance of this study.

Dr. Tony Karram speaks on the danger of plastics to health. Photography: Rambam HCC.
Dr. Tony Karram speaks on the danger of plastics to health. Photography: Rambam HCC.

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine demonstrated an alarming link between the presence of micro and nanoplastics in the carotid artery (which feeds the brain) and an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and premature death.

The Italian multicenter study, led by Raffaele Marfella followed 257 patients set to undergo a carotid endarterectomy procedure for asymptomatic carotid artery disease. During the procedure, specimens of plaque found on the carotid artery were collected and analyzed. Electron microscopy revealed polyethylene in the plaque of 58.4% of the study participants. Their findings confirmed other study finding highlighting the danger of plastics in the environment to animal life. However, this is the first time a danger has been demonstrated in humans.

Dr. Tony Karram, director of the Department of Vascular Surgery & Transplantation at Rambam explains that the researchers were looking for traces of microplastics in plaque build-up in the carotid artery. “The researchers examined the plaque and, in many cases, they found plastic. They followed the group for three years. Patients with plastic in their plaque suffered double the number of strokes, heart attacks, or premature death compared to those who did not.” Karram points out, “Plastic is an irritant and causes inflammation, which could increase the risk of cerebrovascular events or death.”

Evidence already exists that plastic is harmful to human health. However, more research is needed to determine how best to dispose of it, preventing it from entering the body, and what medical interventions can prevent its harmful effects.

Dr. Karram and his team of physician-scientists at Rambam are currently investigating, testing, and characterizing the composition of plaque in an attempt to determine what factors could lead to health complications in their patients. However, the team has not yet tested plaque for plastic. He shares, “It’s exciting that someone has finally found evidence that could predict plastic-related health complications. This is a warning sign that we must reduce the use of plastics used in so many aspects of our lives.”

Nanoplastic particles, 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, and microplastic particles (less than 5 mm in length), are found in the environment. Because of their size, these particles can enter the human body through inhalation, ingestion, or skin absorption, and continue into the digestive system, lungs, and bloodstream, invade cells and tissues in the main organs, and interfere with cellular processes.

Does the presence of plastic in the sclerotic plaque increase the risk for blocked arteries? The Italian study gives an affirmative answer. Furthermore, this study is the first to demonstrate a connection between vascular health and plastic residue in plaque. Smoking, diet, and lifestyle all influence sclerotic plaque build-up; micro- and nano-sized plastic particles attach to the plaque and surgical removal is required.

What can be done?

Firstly, people should pursue a healthy life-style that improves blood flow to the brain. First steps include to stop smoking and follow a low-fat diet. People exposed to plastics or pollution daily should get a regular medical check-up. Reducing or refraining from the use of low-quality plastics, including disposable cutlery, crockery, polythene supermarket bags, and other one-off plastic items is also recommended. Also, do not microwave food in plastic containers. Finally, recycle wherever possible or, better still, stop using these items altogether. Remember: plastics break down into micro or nanoparticles that can enter our bodies and reach the arteries and attach to the plaque, affecting heart and brain health.

From a Hebrew article that first appeared on YNet news.