In one of the world’s first plastics contamination-controlled laboratories, University of Queensland researchers have begun testing blood and tissue samples to develop ways to detect and measure nanoplastics in the human body.
A partnership between UQ and Minderoo Foundation, the Minderoo Centre – Plastics and Human Health will enable world-leading research using this unique lab, state-of-the-art equipment and specific techniques to measure nanoplastics in samples.
Minderoo Foundation Chair, Dr Andrew Forrest AO, said until now, researchers have not been able to accurately measure plastic particles at this scale to determine whether fragmented plastics and plastic-associated chemicals pose a human health risk.
“As plastics are found everywhere – even in the lab – we joined forces with UQ to undertake the ambitious project of designing and building a lab with some of the lowest plastic contamination in the world,” Dr Forrest said.
“Extensive testing of construction materials including paint, floor coverings and adhesives was conducted and as most of these materials contained plastics or plastic chemicals that can leach into the lab, hence it was built almost entirely out of welded stainless steel.
“UQ’s world-leading researchers were carefully selected to lead this research as experts in the techniques to measure the mass of very small concentrations of different molecules within a sample, to conclusively detect and measure plastics in human tissue and fluids.”
The team from UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences (QAEHS) wear brightly coloured, 100 per cent cotton scrubs made specifically for work carried out in the clean lab to minimise fibre shedding from standard lab coats and to ensure any fibres are easily identified.
QAEHS Director, Professor Kevin Thomas, said researchers were yet to understand whether nanoplastic particles and plastics smaller than 10 micrometres stayed in the body, rather than passing safely through the gut.
“We know that humans are exposed to plastics daily, but we don’t know if nanoplastics are in our urine, body and brain and if they do harm,” Professor Thomas said.
“Our team has been working tirelessly to develop methods that are sufficiently sensitive and robust to give us clear data to ensure plastic hasn’t entered the sample from the external environment.
“For example, if we’re working on a tissue sample in an open lab where plastics and additives are present in the air, it could become contaminated during testing.
“Samples from the Sydney Brain Bank are transferred to the lab to test for plastics such as polyethylene, polypropylene, PVC, and additives including phthalates and bisphenols, all found in commonly used products.
“After this first phase of research is complete, we can then start to measure chemicals and plastics within humans accurately so we can determine whether nanoplastic particles are in humans or not and get more accurate measures of plastic chemicals.”
The UQ-Minderoo research team expects to release their first findings by the end of the year and will then actively seek collaborations with other globally leading institutions working on similar missions around the world.
The new centre has been identified by international experts as a significant step towards understanding the full extent of human health impacts from plastic.
“We know … a plastic container or something, if it has something like phthalates in it, or BPA or even PFAS and you can put … fluids in it and … try heating it, and you’ll find that you can then detect those chemicals in the liquid – so we know that that can happen but we don’t know how much it’s happening inside us – and I think that’s a really important question.”
– Dr Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, and the National Toxicology Program in the United States.
“I’m very excited to see the Minderoo Foundation support the creation of a lab like this that others will be able to learn from and be able to replicate in other places as well so that we can get accurate measurements and sampling of these materials inside of humans.”
– Rob Bilott, environmental attorney, Partner with the law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP.
“I strongly support this laboratory and believe that this team is uniquely qualified to test samples at the highest level of sensitivity that’s available today. Without this ability to know what in a person’s body accurately and sensitively, we have no way to know what these chemicals are doing to health.”
– Professor Shanna Swan, epidemiologist and professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Author of Count Down.
Established by Andrew and Nicola Forrest in 2001, we are a modern philanthropic organisation seeking to break down barriers, innovate and drive positive, lasting change. Minderoo Foundation is proudly Australian, with key initiatives spanning from ocean research and ending slavery, to collaboration in cancer and community projects.