Are Microplastics in Masks a Health Risk?

Image via Wikimedia Commons

In Brief

  • The Facts:
    • A recent study out of Hull York Medical school found microplastics deeper than expected in the lungs of living people for the first time.

    • Out of the 13 people that had the upper, middle and lower areas of their lungs sampled, 11 of them had microplastics in their lungs.

    • The most prevalent microplastics found in the lungs were polyethylene, and resins.

  • Reflect On:
    • There are several sources of microplastic pollution and health harms.

    • Prevalent microplastics found in the lungs were polyethylene.

    • Given that many masks contain polyethylene and we are wearing them on our face, could this be contributing to the problem?

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A recent study out of Hull York Medical school found microplastics deeper than expected in the lungs of living people for the first time. The paper published in March 2022 sparked accusations on the internet blaming face masks for the results. Fact checking sites were fast to follow debunking this notion.

According to Hull York medical school this is the most robust study of its kind, in which lung samples were taken while people were sedated for surgery. In other studies it has been proven that synthetic fibres are found in lungs but this showed microplastics in people that were still living.

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Out of the 13 people that had the upper, middle and lower areas of their lungs sampled, 11 of them had microplastics in their lungs. What surprised Laura Sadofsky, lead author on the paper, was the amount of microplastics found in the lower respiratory tract.

“We did not expect to find the highest number of particles in the lower regions of the lungs, or particles of the sizes we found. This is surprising as the airways are smaller in the lower parts of the lungs and we would have expected particles of these sizes to be filtered out or trapped before getting this deep into the lungs.”

Laura Sadofsky

The researchers found that the most prevalent microplastics found in the lungs were polyethylene, and resins. 

Polyethylene is used in plastic packaging, nylon, clothes, and is found in face masks. It’s one of the reasons people may have been quick to consider the possibility that face masks could be contributing to the microplastics found in the lungs for this research.  

However, the study was approved in 2012, although published recently. It is unclear based on the study when the subjects were sampled, but it was likely before masks were worn for COVID-19. 

That being said, this only proves that masks were not a reason for microplastics in the lungs of those in this study. It doesn’t prove that masks are not causing increased inhalation of microplastics. In fact, the evidence in this study might be an alarm bell. Without masks that contain polyethylene being worn daily the issue of inhaling microplastics was already becoming concerning, what could be the consequences now?

These plastics breakdown and degrade because of things like heat and moisture.

A fact checker article said that the main reason for the inhalation of microplastics is from clothes and tires.

Isn’t a face mask made of the same materials as clothes, but just put over your mouth where there is a constant stream of heat and moisture? Also, notice that the article says not a “MAJOR” source of microplastics in the lungs, this is because there is not enough research done to know. The article do not say masks are not a source of microplastics in the lungs.

There have been studies taking place throughout the pandemic such as one from Oct 2020 called, “Surgical face masks as a potential source for microplastic pollution in the COVID-19 scenario.” It was looking at the problems that could be associated with face masks on the environment.

The study concluded, “the occurrence, abundance, and quantity microplastics originated from different personal care products, but not the face masks, were reported worldwide. However, there are no studies, and knowledge about face masks are plastic polymers which end up as microplastic and/or nanofiber contaminants in water systems.”

Essentially, no one is reporting face masks as an issue, but there is not enough information yet.

Another study published Jun 2021 called, “COVID-19: Performance study of microplastic inhalation risk posed by wearing masks,” stated,

“Meanwhile, fiber-like microplastic inhalation risk increased, except for N95. All the investigated disinfection processes led to varying extents of microplastic inner structure damage, increasing the risk of microplastic inhalation. Nonetheless, the use of masks is crucial during the pandemic scenario even though they might contribute some microplastics inhalation, it is minor problem as compared with protecting humans from COVID-19.”

If one of the most robust studies done on the inhalation of microplastics took a decade to publish, how can there be so much certainty that the benefits of masks during COVID outweighs the risks? There seems to be a common theme of certainty around “following the science” throughout the pandemic that puts a lot of faith in “science” that has not even had the time to be done or studied properly.

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