Microplastics transfer toxic chemicals through the skin

Research from the University of Birmingham has identified a worrying route for toxic chemicals to be absorbed into the human body through skin contact with microplastics.

The research presents the first experimental evidence that toxic chemicals used to make flame-resistant materials can be absorbed through the skin through contact with microplastics.

The findings underscore the potential health risks associated with exposure to flame retardants and plasticizers, which are still present in several everyday items despite being banned due to their harmful effects.

The research shows that once embedded in microplastics, chemicals used in flame retardants and plasticizers can leach into human sweat and then penetrate the skin barrier and enter the bloodstream.

This discovery highlights a previously unknown route of exposure to these hazardous substances, raising concerns about their impact on human health.

Dr. Ovokeroye Abafe from Brunel University, who was involved in the research while working at the University of Birmingham, explains: “Microplastics are ubiquitous in the environment, yet we still know relatively little about the health problems they can cause.

“Our research shows that they play a role as ‘carriers’ of harmful chemicals, which can enter our bloodstream through the skin.

“These chemicals are persistent, so with continued or regular exposure to them there will be a gradual accumulation to the point where they begin to cause damage.”

Persistent environmental pollutants

Despite regulatory measures, many of these toxic chemicals used as flame retardants and plasticizers remain in the environment and remain in older electronics, furniture, carpets and building materials.

These chemicals are known to seriously affect human health, causing damage to the liver and nervous system, increasing the risk of cancer and affecting reproductive health.

This persistence increases the potential for human exposure, especially given the widespread prevalence of microplastics in the environment.

Simulating exposure to microplastic chemicals

In experiments conducted by the research team, innovative 3D models of human skin were used as an alternative to traditional laboratory animals and excised human tissues.

Over a 24-hour period, these models were exposed to microplastics containing polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a common flame-retardant chemical group.

Regarding absorption results

The research showed that up to 8% of the chemicals present in the microplastics can be absorbed through the skin.

Furthermore, absorption levels were found to be influenced by the skin’s hydration level, with more hydrated skin showing higher chemical absorption.

These findings provide crucial insight into the mechanisms by which toxic chemicals from microplastics contribute to pollutant loads in the body.

Dr. Mohamed Abdallah, Associate Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham, added: “These findings provide important evidence for regulators and policymakers to improve legislation around microplastics and protect public health from harmful exposure.”

As concerns about microplastic pollution and associated health risks continue to rise, this research underlines the urgency of addressing the sources and impacts of these widespread environmental pollutants.