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Covid-19 and the immune system: are microplastics in food making us sick?

Several studies have found a relation between the respiratory problems caused by the Covid-19 virus and a weakened immune system. While eating more fruits and vegetables may seem adequate for boosting the immune system, new research has found that microplastics can get into vegetables and fruit. The research on microplastics and food is particularly timely because previous research had already shown the impact of microplastics on the immune system and the lungs, both of which play a central role in the current pandemic.

While much is still uncertain regarding the spread and severity of the Covid-19 virus, it is clear that those with a weakened immune system have the greatest risk of getting gravely ill. As the immune system is heavily dependent on nutritious and uncontaminated food, two studies on microplastics that were published last week and which have been widely reported in the international media are particularly worrying.

Previous analyses had already found plastics in crustaceans (such as lobster and crab) and fish, but new studies have now also discovered how plastics get into vegetables and fruit – and thus indirectly into meat and dairy. Research by Margherita Ferrante has shown that apples are the most contaminated fruit while carrots are the vegetables most affected. This is true also of organic fruits and vegetables as microplastics are everywhere, including the soil used for agricultural purposes. How this works is described in the second study by Willie Peijnenburg and Lianzhen Li: “microplastics are penetrating the roots of lettuce and wheat plants, after which they are transported to the edible above-ground plant parts”. The new insight is that while it was thought for decades that plastic particles were too large to pass through the physical barriers of intact plant tissue, this appears to be false.

The Amsterdam-based Plastic Soup Foundation describes the situation as “unchartered territory” and wonders whether plastic makes us sick. Although neither study makes a direct connection with Covid-19, the studies have been shared with the Plastic Health Coalition (PHC) ahead of a summit dedicated to the relation between plastic and health in April 2021.

Interesting in the context of the respiratory problems caused by Covid-19, the PHC describes how plastics impact the human body, including the immune system and lungs. Noting that plastic microfibers originating from materials such as synthetic clothing and furniture are breathed in every day, the PHC calls for further research on the ability of our lungs to eliminate these particles. Similar research should be conducted regarding the relation between plastics and the immune system, as it is currently unclear whether the immune system is equipped to tackle plastic intruders and whether such intruders weaken the immune system to such an extent that it becomes harder to fight other unwanted intruders.

With what we know now about Covid-19, the severe respiratory problems that it can cause, and the danger of a weak immune system in successfully fighting the virus, the research on plastics is highly relevant and could possibly be an element that has been overlooked – especially considering that some of the regions that have been affected by the virus, such as Northern Italy, are notorious for the bad air quality and the respiratory problems of their inhabitants.

Author: Dr Olivier Vonk

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