Researchers from the University Medical Centre (UMC) Utrecht recently announced that cells exposed to microplastics experience cell death three times faster than those that are not. With microplastic pollution everywhere, the findings are sobering.

UMC Utrecht scientists presented their research at the Plastic Health Summit in Amsterdam on Thursday, warning that immune cells that attack microplastics are three times more likely to be damaged beyond repair, consequently prompting an immediate inflammatory response. This rate of cell death is in excess of normal immune cell behavior, such as engulfing bacteria or foreign bodies.

Related: One plastic teabag can release billions of microplastics into your cup

“These results raise serious questions about what microplastics are doing to our immune health,” explained Nienke Vrisekoop, assistant professor of quantitative immunology at UMC Utrecht and lead author of the study. “Urgent further research is needed to paint as full a picture as possible.”

The term microplastics has steadily crept into contemporary literature. Plastic does not readily biodegrade, but rather splinters into progressively smaller pieces, or microplastics. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines the size of microplastics as less than five millimeters in length, making many of them invisible to the naked eye.

As an emerging field of study, only recently have microplastics been the subject of research, spurred by their ubiquity as pollutants. They contaminate the oceans and threaten aquatic life. They are also small enough to bypass water filtration systems and find their way into drinking water. There is growing concern that when a person consumes microplastics, the particles are tiny enough to enter through the gut wall and eventually the circulatory system.

“The demonstrated impacts, along the life cycle of plastic, paint an unequivocally toxic picture: plastic threatens human health on a global scale,” said David Azoulay, Environmental Health program director at the Center for International Environmental Law. “It’s high time businesses across the world took responsibility for the plastic they produce.”

+ UMC Utrecht

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