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The Right Chemistry: Tiny nanoplastics raise big questions

May 13, 2024May 13, 2024

They're found in just about every food and beverage — and while we don’t know if they compromise our health, it's a good bet they're not doing us any good.

I was recently introduced to pickleball. It’s a fun game, a blend of tennis and ping-pong. As my mind often drifts to science, I noted that we were playing on a plastic surface, hitting a plastic ball with a plastic paddle over a plastic net. I was looking through plastic sunglasses, wearing a polyester T-shirt, nylon shorts, and sneakers with a polyurethane sole. I sipped water from a plastic bottle. An interesting reminder of how we find plastics virtually everywhere we look.

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The value of plastics is immeasurable. Airplanes, cars, computers and hospitals could not function without them. But, as the common expression goes, there is no free lunch. Especially if that lunch comes packaged in plastic. Researchers are now asking questions about the eventual fate of plastics — and not only about unsightly litter on beaches, straws in turtles’ noses, or birds being strangled by discarded six-pack holders.

Could the plastics that save lives when used in airbags, defibrillators and MRI machines also have a dark side in some applications? Maybe so. That issue has been raised thanks to modern technology that is capable of detecting the presence of tiny particles of plastic that form when bigger pieces break down. These are in the “nanoparticle” range, measured in billionths of a metre, so small that they cannot be seen by the human eye.

Certainly, the concept of nanoplastics and whatever risk they may pose never crossed anyone’s mind in 1957 when Monsanto’s House of the Future opened as an attraction in Disneyland. The promo for the opening in 1957 proclaimed that “hardly a natural material appears anywhere in the house.” This was at a time when replacement of natural substances such as wood and cotton by the newfangled synthetic plastics was regarded as an advance. They were strong, long-lasting and easy to clean.

Monsanto, in collaboration with MIT engineers and Disney’s “imagineers” aimed to demonstrate plastic’s versatility. The outside panels were made of polyester reinforced with glass fibres; inside there were vinyl tiles, melamine dishes, acrylic curtains, nylon carpets and a flat plastic television screen on the wall. The TV was never on for the simple reason that flat screen TVs did not exist at the time.

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The house was demolished in 1967, with difficulty. The fibreglass construction was so strong that the wrecking ball just bounced off. Eventually workers had to use jackhammers and power saws. There was no concern about where the plastic would eventually end up and surely no thought was given to the possibility that the fine particles that were scattered everywhere during the deconstruction could end up haunting us as they made their way into our food and water. However, that is not an unusual situation for the progress of science.

Often a problem is identified, and a solution is sought. After much work, an answer is found and is widely touted as a significant breakthrough. Then as it is put into practice, an unforeseen new problem may appear that then has to be confronted. For example, when toxic ammonia or sulphur dioxide were replaced in refrigerators by the safer, inert freons, nobody could have predicted that these same freons would eventually end up in the upper atmosphere and destroy the ozone layer. When that was discovered, freons with a different molecular structure that did not interact with ozone were developed.

While understandably nanoplastics were not on anyone’s mind when the House of the Future featured the wonders of plastics, we are now in the future and know a lot more than what was known back then. Thanks to the analytical equipment available, we now know that just about every food we eat or beverage we drink contains nanoplastics that number in the millions or billions. What we don’t know is whether these tiny particles can compromise our health. But it is a good bet that they are not doing us any good.

Where do these nanoparticles come from? Improperly discarded plastic items that end up in water systems are a major source. As these get battered by wind, waves and sunlight, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces that may not be removed by municipal water filtration systems. In the ocean, they can end up in the bodies of fish, and thence in people.

Shipping accidents can also contribute to the problem. In 2021 a fire started aboard the giant cargo ship X-Press Pearl off the coast of Sri Lanka that eventually sank the ship releasing into the water some 17,000 tons of plastic pellets known as “nurdles,” the raw materials that are melted and then moulded to make plastic products. Thousands of marine animals died from ingesting the nurdles, and those pellets are still the source of trillions and trillions of nanoparticles.

Another source of nanoparticles are plastic food and beverage containers. Researchers at the University of Nebraska analyzed water that had been stored at various temperatures in plastic containers. In all cases, millions of nanoparticles were released from every square centimetre of the plastic. The greatest numbers detected were when the plastics were microwaved. To get an idea whether the nanoplastics had any sort of toxicity, embryonic kidney cells were exposed to nanoplastic-tainted water. At the highest concentration used, which was greater than normal human exposure, about 75 per cent of the kidney cells died.

This does not necessarily mean that nanoplastics can cause kidney problems in people, but we can discern that it is not a good idea to microwave plastics. That is underlined by research from the Medical University of Vienna that showed nanoplastics can cross the blood brain barrier. The study was in mice, but plastic in the brain is not a comforting notion.

A further issue is that numerous additives are used in plastic manufacture. These include flame retardants, plasticizers, anti-static agents, catalysts, viscosity modifiers, antioxidants, biocides and UV light stabilizers that may also be released with heat, or as plastics age. Some of these may act as “endocrine disrupters,” meaning they can have hormone-like effects. When it comes to microwaving, use glass or ceramic.

Movements to eliminate all plastics are puerile nonsense, but we do need to use plastics more judiciously. We can surely do without many single-use items, and can avoid microwaving plastics, even those that are claimed to be microwave-safe. But unfortunately, we have to accept that nanoplastics, whether released from tires rubbing against pavement, or from water flowing through plastic pipes, or from synthetic fabrics in the washing machine, are a part of our life. As far as pickleball goes, I won’t ease up on smashing the plastic ball even though it may spew more nanoplastics my way.

By the way, the reason we now know all about nanoplastics in the environment is thanks to instruments known as “nanoparticle tracking analyzers.” Of course, they have numerous plastic parts.

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Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society ( He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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