In the face of the urgent need to better understand the potential health effects of microplastics in our bodies, scientists have been grappling with the challenge of detecting and identifying these tiny pollutants. However, a breakthrough has been made by Columbia University environmental chemist Naixin Qian and her colleagues. They have developed an innovative imaging technique that exposes the insidious petrochemical fragments that often go unnoticed. Unlike conventional detection methods that can only provide estimates of bulk particles, this new technique not only distinguishes individual particles but also allows for their identification.
Nanoplastics are minuscule pieces of plastic, less than a micrometer in size, that are produced during various industrial processes and the degradation of larger plastic products. Despite their small size, these particles have the ability to cross biological barriers and may have a significant impact on toxicity evaluation. Qian and her team emphasize the importance of studying nanoparticles, as they play a predominant role in the potential harm caused by microplastics.
Capturing the Invisible with Lasers
The research team employed a cutting-edge technique called stimulated Raman scattering microscopy. By using a pair of lasers that can be tuned to resonate with specific molecules, they were able to identify the chemical composition of the target particles. The team developed algorithms to cross-reference databases of chemical resonances, enabling them to determine the makeup of the particles. To test the effectiveness of their technique, the team analyzed popular bottled water brands in the US. They discovered up to 370,000 particles per liter in some of the samples, with as much as 90 percent of these particles being nanoplastics. Such findings indicate an average of approximately 240,000 nanoplastic particles per liter, a number up to 100 times greater than previous estimates. Surprisingly, the most common plastic discovered was not the material of the bottle itself, but a compound known as polyamide, which is used in the filters that purify the water. The expected plastic bottle material, PET, was also commonly found.
The accumulation of microplastics in various tissues throughout our bodies raises concerns about long-term effects. Although microplastics are not immediately toxic, they have the potential to attract harmful substances, such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria and toxic molecules like fire retardants and phthalates. Moreover, the smaller plastic molecules may transport these harmful substances into our most vulnerable tissues. Therefore, it is crucial to gain a better understanding of the interactions between these particles and our biological tissues. Qian and her colleagues hope that their imaging technique can shed light on this aspect and provide invaluable information to address the escalating toxicity concerns associated with microplastics.
The threat of nanoplastics poses an emerging environmental crisis that demands immediate attention and further scientific investigation. The development of a reliable imaging technique by Qian and her team marks a significant step towards addressing this issue. Detecting and identifying individual nanoparticles will pave the way for a better understanding of their potential health effects and allow for the implementation of necessary measures to mitigate their impacts. As the presence of nanoplastics becomes increasingly apparent, it is imperative that scientists, policymakers, and individuals alike come together to tackle this issue head-on. Only through collaboration and concerted efforts can we hope to safeguard our environment and protect future generations from the harmful effects of nanoplastics.