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What Do Plastics Have To Do With Infectious Diseases and the Immune System?

by Dr. Jaclynn Moskow

Plastic bottles and microplastics floating in the open ocean


Most people are aware that plastics are harmful to the environment. They pollute soil, air, and water and disrupt our ecosystems. Few people, however, are aware of the influence plastics may have on the spread of infectious diseases and on the function of our immune systems.

In recognition of Earth Day 2021, we will examine the ways in which polluting our planet with plastics may affect human health.


Plastics as a Breeding Ground for Pathogens

Microbes struggle to survive on certain surfaces, and thrive on others. Copper, for example, has anti-microbial properties (1); while plastic keeps some microbes alive longer than other common materials.

Influenza A and B viruses survive for longer periods on plastic surfaces than on cloth or paper (2). SARS-CoV-2 has been shown to survive longer on plastic than on glass, stainless steel, pigskin, cardboard, banknotes, cotton, wood, paper, tissue, or copper (3). Indeed, bacteria – and not only viruses – favor plastic. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), for example, survives longer on plastic than on wood, glass, or cloth (4). There is thus concern for plastics serving as fomites, especially in high-risk settings such as hospitals.

But what about the plastics polluting our oceans? Are these free from pathogens? There are actually such complex microbial communities found on the plastics in our ocean that the term “plastisphere” was coined (5). A 2019 study examined the plastisphere of plastic nurdles from five European beaches (6). Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Vibrio spp. were found colonizing nurdles from all beaches examined. Vibrio spp. occur naturally in seawater, and researchers have speculated that fecally-contaminated water was likely the original source of the E. coli.


Environment pollution - plastic floating in the water
Plastisphere is a breeding ground for pathogens


A subsequent study conducted in 2020 analyzed biofilms found on plastic substrates in estuarine tributaries of Lower Chesapeake Bay (7). Vibrio spp. – specifically V. cholerae, V. parahaemolyticus, and V. vulnificus – were identified… all three of which can be pathogenic to humans. Concerningly, the authors noted that, “the concentration of putative Vibrio spp. on microplastics was much greater than in corresponding water samples.” They also found a high rate of antibiotic resistance amongst isolates, noting that “the potential for plastic in aqueous environments to serve as a vector for pathogenic organisms is compounded by the possibility for its dissemination of antibiotic-resistance genes.”

Several additional studies have confirmed the presence of Vibrio spp. on marine plastics found in various bodies of water across the world – and it is only a matter of time before additional pathogens will be identified as common residents of the plastisphere. 


Plastics and the Immune System

In addition to polluting our oceans, plastics are polluting our bodies. A team examined 47 liver- and adipose-tissue specimens from donated cadavers, and detected plastic micro- and nanoparticles in 100% of samples (8). Microplastics have been found in human placentas (9), and animal models indicate that nanoplastics can cross the blood-brain barrier (10). There is also evidence that when plastics accumulate in the body, they may be harmful to the immune system. 

Recent work has examined how immune cells behave in the presence of microplastics. Microplastics coated in blood plasma were placed in culture dishes containing immune cells. Within 24 hours, 60% of immune cells were destroyed. Under the same culture conditions, but in the absence of microplastics, only 20% of immune cells were destroyed (11).

Microplastics may also alter the immune system at the level of gene expression. When adult zebrafish were exposed to microplastics, alterations in the expression of 41 genes encoding proteins attributed to immune processes were observed (12).

The toxic effects of plastic do not appear to be limited to the immune system. In animal models, plastics are found to be potentially harmful to just about every cell type and organ system. Micro- and nanoplastics appear to be pro-inflammatory (13), are known to irritate the respiratory tract (14), can act as endocrine disrupters (15), may be neurotoxic (16), and appear to alter the gut microbiome (17). Such effects are observed even in the absence of controversial additives such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates.


Ocean microplastics pollution cycle
Ocean microplastics pollution cycle


So What Can We Do?

Unfortunately, plastics are now ubiquitous. They are used in packaging materials, construction, textile manufacturing, automobiles, furniture, electronics, toys, medical devices, makeup, and even chewing gum. As a result, micro and nanoplasitics have contaminated our food chain and have been detected in cows milk (18), seafood (19), fruit and vegetables (20), honey and sugar (21), table salt (22), and tap water (23).

In 1960, an estimated half a million metric tons of plastic were produced each year, increasing to 348 million tons in 2017 (24). This compounding problem warrants immediate attention.

Some have suggested the use of fungi, bacteria, or worms to help dissolve plastic. Although the introduction of such organisms into the ecosystem is itself risky, solutions of this type may still be worth exploring.

Many investigators have been directing their efforts at designing biodegradable and compostable plastics and plastic alternatives. The assumption is that such materials would be less harmful to the environment and human health than traditional plastics – but there are many unknowns. One study concluded that the chemical processing required to create some existing bioplastics resulted in a greater amount of pollutants than the chemical processing used to create traditional plastics (25). Beyond this, there is no data on the interaction of biodegradable plastics with the human body.

A woman chooses a paper bag with food and refuses to use plastic on the background of the kitchen. The concept of environmental protection and the abandonment of plastic
Small everyday decisions count


While the “big-picture” solution remains elusive, there are easy steps that we can take to reduce our individual plastic footprints and lessen the potential for harm to our own bodies. We can avoid drinking and eating from plastic containers, abstain from using plastic bags, switch to wire hangers, wooden toys, etc. 

We only get one Earth, and we only get one body… and we must take great care of both. 

Happy Earth Day!


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