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We Have Plastic Hearts

Last week the American Chemical Society shared a concerning report:

Now, in a pilot study of people who underwent heart surgery, researchers in ACS’ Environmental Science & Technology report that they have found microplastics in many heart tissues. They also report evidence suggesting that microplastics were unexpectedly introduced during the procedures.

In a pilot experiment, the researchers collected heart tissue samples from 15 people during cardiac surgeries, as well as pre- and post-operation blood specimens from half of the participants. Then the team analyzed the samples with laser direct infrared imaging and identified 20 to 500 micrometer-wide particles made from eight types of plastic, including polyethylene terephthalate, polyvinyl chloride and poly(methyl methacrylate). This technique detected tens to thousands of individual microplastic pieces in most tissue samples, though the amounts and materials varied between participants. All of the blood samples also contained plastic particles, but after surgery their average size decreased, and the particles came from more diverse types of plastics.

Plastic is nasty stuff and it's everywhere – including in our hearts! Crude oil is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons, which are molecules made up of hydrogen and carbon atoms. When crude oil is refined, it is heated and separated into different components, including gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene, and asphalt. The leftover material, called petroleum residue, is a cheap and readily available source of feedstock for making plastics. Since over 99% of plastic comes from this residue, it indirectly fuels the demand for oil. The cost and flexibility of plastic are hard to match. Yet, I remain hopeful that we'll substantially reduce our oil reliance in plastic production and discover innovative alternatives in my lifetime.

This summer I visited the exhibit Plastic: Remaking our World at the MAAT in Lisbon. If you want to delve further into the subject of plastic, I recommend both the accompanying book and a video produced by the Vitra Museum. The book also touches on lots of emerging plastic alternatives.