Human health and microplastics


Injury to the environment and human health

Anthony K Campbell and Stephanie B Matthews


            Plastics have become one of the major pollutants of the 21century. Their breakdown forms small particles and fibres known as micro (1µm – 5mm)- and nano- (1-1000 nm) 1 plastics . These have been found is sea and fresh water, sand, the soil, many animals and plants, and food ingested by humans 2-4. They have also been found in human tissue .Currently there are at least 45 types of plastics. Few, if any, are biodegradable. There is accumulating evidence that micro- and nano- plastics can cause damage to animal and human health and to plants 5. They have been detected in blood several human organs 6-8. These plastics can also absorb toxic metals, and chemicals, including pharmaceuticals 6-10. There is therefore and urgent need to document their occurrence in environments to which humans are exposed, and to investigate potential cellular mechanisms that can result in toxic effects in humans, and animals.            We have established an online journal, The Young Darwinian, whose primary aim is to catalyse research projects for young people and to publish their results. With the support of CALIN and collaboration with Professor Arwyn Jones and Dr Iwan Palmer, Cardiff University, we have developed a simple fluorescence method for detecting micro-plastics in the environment. This has been incorporated into a kit which is now being distributed to schools and other students. The Darwin Centre we set up in Pembrokeshire regularly runs workshops and field trips investigating plastic pollution in the environment.            Professor Campbell is a world expert in intracellular signalling 11,12, a potential prime target for micro-and nano- plastic toxicity. Our aim therefore is to establish four main project areas to provide solid evidence of the risks of these plastics to human health and pharmacology.

Main project areas

  1. Occurrence of micro- and nano- plastics in the environment: organisms, water, sand, air, and food.
  2. Uptake of pharmaceuticals by micro- and nano -plastics.
  3. Uptake of micro- and nano- plastics by invertebrates. We are experienced at working with two model systems – the fresh water flea : Daphnia 13, and the bioluminescent marine hydroid Obelia 14-16.
  4. Effects of microplastics on cells. We are experienced in investigating Ca2+ and kinase signalling in several cell types, particularly phagocytes and the generation of toxic reactive oxygen species 17,18.

Please contact us at if you are interested in carrying out a microplastics project and having it published on The Young Darwinian web site.


1          Sangkham, S. et al. A review on microplastics and nanoplastics in the environment: Their occurrence, exposure routes, toxic studies, and potential effects on human health. Marine Pollution Bulletin 181, doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2022.113832 (2022).

2          Singh, S., Trushna, T., Kalyanasundaram, M., Tamhankar, A. J. & Diwan, V. Microplastics in drinking water: a macro issue. Water Supply 22, 5650-5674, doi:10.2166/ws.2022.189 (2022).

3          Chen, G. L., Feng, Q. Y. & Wang, J. Mini-review of microplastics in the atmosphere and their risks to humans. Science of the Total Environment 703, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.135504 (2020).

4          Mamun, A. A., Prasetya, T. A. E., Dewi, I. R. & Ahmad, M. Microplastics in human food chains: Food becoming a threat to health safety. Science of the Total Environment 858, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.159834 (2023).

5          Yong, C. Q. Y., Valiyaveettil, S. & Tang, B. L. Toxicity of Microplastics and Nanoplastics in Mammalian Systems. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17, doi:10.3390/ijerph17051509 (2020).

6          De-la-Torre, G. E. Microplastics: an emerging threat to food security and human health. Journal of Food Science and Technology-Mysore, doi:10.1007/s13197-019-04138-1.

7          Fournier, E., Etienne-Mesmin, L., Blanquet-Diot, S. & Mercier-Bonin, M. Microplastics in our diet: a focus on intestinal health. Cahiers De Nutrition Et De Dietetique 57, 270-283, doi:10.1016/j.cnd.2022.03.001 (2022).

8          Gruber, M. M. et al. Plasma proteins facilitates placental transfer of polystyrene particles. Journal of Nanobiotechnology 18, doi:10.1186/s12951-020-00676-5 (2020).

9          Ta, A. T. & Babel, S. Microplastics pollution with heavy metals in the aquaculture zone of the Chao Phraya River Estuary, Thailand. Marine Pollution Bulletin 161, doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2020.111747 (2020).

10        Yu, X. X. et al. Selective adsorption of antibiotics on aged microplastics originating from mariculture benefits the colonization of opportunistic pathogenic bacteria. Environmental Pollution 313, doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2022.120157 (2022).

11        Campbell, A. K. Intracellular Calcium.  789 (Wiley, 2015).

12        Campbell, A. K. Fundamentals of Intracellular Calcium.  (Wiley, 2018).

13        Campbell, A. K., Wann, K. T. & Matthews, S. B. Lactose causes heart arrhythmia in the water flea Daphnia pulex. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology B-Biochemistry & Molecular Biology 139, 225-234, doi:10.1016/j.cbpc.2004.07.004 (2004).

14        Campbell, A. K. Chemiluminescence: Principles and Applications in Biology and Medicine.  608 (VCH/Horwood, 1988).

15        Campbell, A. K. Extraction, Partial-Purification and Properties of Obelin, Calcium-Activated Luminescent Protein from Hydroid Obelia-Geniculata. Biochemical Journal 143, 411-418, doi:10.1042/bj1430411 (1974).

16        Morse, V. J., Wann, K. T. & Campbell, A. K. Bioluminescence and fluorescence in Obelia species. Luminescence 29, 33-34 (2014).

17        Davies, E. V., Hallett, M. B. & Campbell, A. K. Localized Superoxide Release by Neutrophils Can Be Provoked by a Cytosolic Calcium Cloud. Immunology 73, 228-234 (1991).

18        Hallett, M. B. & Campbell, A. K. Measurement of Changes in Cytoplasmic Free Ca-2+ in Fused Cell Hybrids. Nature295, 155-158, doi:10.1038/295155a0 (1982).

Professor Anthony K Campbell CBE and Dr Stephanie Matthews


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