Small but Mighty Pollutants

Small but Mighty Pollutants

By: Cassidy Myhre

Who knew something so tiny could cause so much harm? Increasing evidence shows that microplastics (MPs) – tiny plastic particles found in the environment and in several everyday products – don’t only act as carriers that transport contaminants into organisms, they also induce serious health risks. . 

It has been established that Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), such as MPs, may be major contributors to T1D due to their effects on autoimmunity and the gut microbiota. The MP most known for their diabetogenic effects are phthalate esters (PAEs). 

A study examined this connection by determining whether MPs could transport and release PAEs into the mouse gut and render consequential toxic effects. The study’s results provide valuable information regarding the health risk of MPs and plastic additives: 

  • MPs absorbed PAEs, transporting PAEs into the gut and causing intestinal accumulation. 
  • Exposure to DEHP-contaminated MPs for 30 days increased intestinal permeability and enhanced intestinal inflammation. 
  • The 703 differentially regulated genes are involved in oxidative stress, immune response, lipid metabolism and hormone metabolism. 
  • Combined exposure of MPs and DEHP caused alterations in gut microbiota composition, especially energy metabolism and immune function related bacteria. 

Another type of PAE, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)are brominated flame retardant chemicals and environmental contaminants and have endocrine-disrupting properties associated with diabetes and metabolic syndromes. A study found PBDEs to be especially harmful in the maternal environment, possibly leading to long-lasting metabolic consequences during early-life development. Results from in vivo glucose and insulin tolerance tests and ex vivo analyses showed that:


  • DE-71, a commercial penta-mixture of PBDEs, produced fasting hyperglycemia, glucose intolerance, reduced sensitivity and delayed glucose clearance after insulin challenge.
  • Other ex vivo glycemic correlates occur more generally in exposed F0 and F1, specifically reduced plasma insulin and altered glucoregulatory endocrines, exaggerated sympathoadrenal activity, decreased thermogenic brown adipose tissue mass and reduced hepatic glutamate dehydrogenase enzymatic activity. 

Given the harmful effects of using MPs revealed in these studies, especially with PAEs, it is important that the major sources of plastic additives in our daily lives be identified so as to reduce the risk of exposure and subsequent possible development of T1D and other metabolic syndromes. 


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