Lab to measure nanoplastics in the human body

Thursday, 19 May, 2022 | Supplied by: The University of Queensland

The Minderoo Centre Nanoplastics and Human Health Laboratory is a highly specialised research facility at The University of Queensland (UQ) that is investigating the impact of nanoplastics on human health. A partnership between UQ and Minderoo Foundation, the lab aims to determine whether nanoplastic particles and plastics smaller than 10 µm stay in the body, rather than passing safely through the system.

Measuring nanoplastics has been described as like looking for something the size of a tennis ball between here and 100 km away, with Minderoo Foundation Chair Dr Andrew Forrest saying that researchers have not previously been able to accurately measure plastic particles at the nanoscale to determine whether fragmented plastics and plastic-associated chemicals pose a human health risk. The new lab is set to change this.

“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,” said Professor Kevin Thomas, Director of UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences.

“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.”

Thomas said his team has been working to develop methods that are sufficiently sensitive and robust to provide clear data to ensure plastic hasn’t entered the sample from the external environment. For example, the scientists wear brightly coloured, 100% cotton scrubs made specifically for work in the clean lab to avoid fibre shedding from standard lab coats and to ensure any fibres are easily identified.

Furthermore, to ensure a controlled environment for the research, m3architecture was engaged to design a lab almost entirely free of plastic and any other contaminants that might impact the veracity of the work. The director of the company, Michael Christensen, said the challenging brief meant the design team had to go back to basics.

“We worked intensively with scientists at UQ to carry out rigorous testing on every element of the lab’s design and construction, from the walls, flooring and sealants through to the equipment needed to carry out the research,” Christensen said. “The task was made more complex by the need to comply with technical requirements, for example chemical resistance, which ruled out timber and many other alternative materials.”

A small sample from each proposed material was analysed by the UQ team to determine its composition and arrive at the best, most plastic-free choices. The final design is a welded, stainless steel box, with additional wall and ceiling panels made from aerated molten metal to improve acoustics and make the laboratory a better working environment.

The research team expects to release the first findings by the end of the year and will then actively seek collaborations with other leading institutions working on similar missions around the world.

Images supplied by The University of Queensland.

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