LSU begins research on the impact of everyday product, microplastic

Louisiana

BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – LSU Chemical Engineering professors are taking a closer look into the use of plastic, which may cause lingering health issues at the rate the planet is currently using plastic.

The National Science Foundation Chemistry Division awarded LSU $300,000 to begin research on the impact of microplastic on the air we breathe.

“It [plastic] doesn’t really degrade, but it breaks up into smaller fragments. Those fragments are called microplastics and these specific fragments were found in air, ocean and water bodies, and people are starting to look at the potential impact on human health,” said Assistant Professor Bhuvnesh Bharti.

Bharti and Kalliat T. Valsaraj, along with graduate student Ahmed Al Harraq, say their goal is to find how the microplastic is created, what governs the spreading of the microplastic and how it will impact human health.

Valsaraj says the idea of the research was born when he found particles of plastic in areas where there has been no use of plastic. From there, the professor became curious about how microplastic can travel in the air so much.

“They are much like dust particles that transfer from place to place. I will be inhaling this as they are moving through the atmosphere,” said Valsaraj.

Particles of plastic have already been found in animals like fish. Bharti says he is confident that one day we may have food labeled as “plastic-free” just as we have food at the grocery store which is “GMO-free”.

According to Valsaraj, plastic that is currently in our bloodstream can not be detected, which makes this research even more important.

In 2019, the World Health Organization released a statement on their concern about microplastics.

“We urgently need to know more about the health impact of microplastics because they are everywhere, including in our drinking water,” said Dr. Maria Neira, Director of the Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health at WHO. “Based on the limited information we have, microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels. But we need to find out more. We also need to stop the rise in plastic pollution worldwide.”

In the meantime, the trio urges people to be more aware of the amount of plastic we use everyday.

“It’s the action we take today that will impact our future generations. That’s why we teach in our classes as well we have to be careful with what we synthesize, what we put in our environment, and how we use it,” Bharti said. “We need to be a bit more cautious with the use and dispose of plastic.”

According to WHO,  microplastics even get into drinking water.

“Microplastics may enter drinking water sources in a number of ways: from surface run-off (e.g. after a rain event) to wastewater effluent (both treated and untreated), combined sewer overflows, industrial effluent, degraded plastic waste, and atmospheric deposition,” according to WHO.

According to graduate student Ahmed Al Harraq, the image above shows a bottle with only water and another bottle containing water and microplastics. 

“When you shine a laser through water that contains a lot of these tiny particles, the light is scattered and becomes visible through the liquid. You see in fact that the laser light is not visible in the bottle containing only water,” Al Harraq said.

While LSU is focusing on their study, they encourage others to participate in recycling and educate themselves on the good and bad forms of plastic.

“We as a society need to come together,” Bharti said. “Find new biocompatible and biodegradable alternatives and replace polymers and plastics with those plant-based plastics.”

More on microplastics in drinking water from WHO can be found here.

The professors say the research should take four to five years, possibly longer.

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