Study links microplastics in arteries to huge increase in heart disease and death

Powerful magnification allowed researchers to count and identify microplastic beads and fragments that were collected in 11 western national parks and wilderness areas over 14 months of sampling.
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Microplastics are everywhere – even in the fatty deposits called plaque that can build up in the arteries and cause heart disease and strokes.

Now researchers in Italy have found that in people with microplastic in the plaque clogging their neck arteries, the risk of heart attack, stroke or death was four-and-a-half times higher than in those whose plaque didn’t contain plastic, said Dr. Eric Topol, a cardiologist and executive vice president of Scripps Research in La Jolla, California.

“It's extraordinary," he said.

"I’m a cardiologist for three decades plus and I never envisioned we’d have microplastic in our arteries and its presence would accelerate arteriosclerosis,” he said.

The study was published in this week’s edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. While it was able to link the presence of microplastics to health effects, it does not prove that the microplastics caused the increase in deaths and heart disease, as there could be other variables at play.

Blockage of the arteries, especially the carotid arteries in the neck, is a well-known danger sign for stroke and heart disease. When the neck arteries become blocked or congested with the plaque, less blood flows to the brain, sometimes resulting in stroke or even death.

One treatment is to surgically remove the plugs of plaque.

Many studies have shown that tiny bits of plastic, some too small to be seen, can enter the human body through food, inhalation or exposure to the skin and have been found in the placenta, lungs, liver, breast milk, urine and blood.

To find out if there were microplastics in the fatty deposits, the Italian researchers tested for microplastic in the plaque that had been removed from the necks of 257 patients between 2019 and 2020.

Of those, 150 – 58% – had measurable amounts of polyethylene and sometimes polyvinyl chloride.

Using chemical tests and electron microscopes, the researchers also found “visible, jagged-edged foreign particles” in the fatty deposits.

Previous studies have shown that microplastic and nanoplastic particles can induce inflammation and other negative effects in the body. The Italian researchers tested for inflammatory markers and found more of them in the blood of patients with higher levels of microplastics.

After studying the patients for 34 months, the rate of heart attack, stroke and death was four-and-a-half times higher in people with microplastic and inflammatory markers than those without.

Dr. Philip Landrigan, who wrote an editorial that appeared with the study, described the research as a call to arms.

"Inaction is no longer an option," wrote Landrigan, who directs the Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good at Boston College.

"What can physicians and other health professionals do? The first step is to recognize that the low cost and convenience of plastics are deceptive and that, in fact, they mask great harms," he said. "We need to encourage our patients to reduce their use of plastics, especially unnecessary single-use items."

At the national and international level, he said, a focus on limiting plastics needs to become part of the transition away from carbon-based products that are also leading to climate change.

Topol agreed that the study should mark a turning point.

“This is big. This is as good a smoking gun for plastics as we’ve seen,” he said.

Finding microplastics in human arteries alone was huge, but following the patients for three years and finding disease and death rates were four and a half times higher was enormous, he said.

“They basically connected the dots – the presence of the plastic in the arteries, profound inflammation and then events such as stroke, heart attack and death. They had it all,” said Topol.

Contributing: Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Microplastics in arteries linked with heart disease risk: Study