operating theatre

Operating theatres covered in microplastics with unknown health impacts

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High levels of microplastics have been discovered in operating theatres, with unknown impacts on the health of patients.

A University of Hull team analysed microplastic levels in both the operating theatre and anaesthetic room in cardiothoracic surgeries and discovered an average of 5,000 microplastics per metre squared when the theatre was in use - almost three times the amount found in our homes. The anaesthetic room had far fewer particles, with an average levels of just 500 per metre squared when in use.

Both settings had no microplastics settling out from the air when not in use.

Researcher professor Jeanette Rotchell said: “You can imagine that during a cardiothoracic operation, which may last as long as eight hours, there will be a lot of people, utensils and consumable items. These items are all wrapped in plastic and this is contributing to all those particles in the operating room.

“It is a very dense environment for plastic particles to be introduced into the surrounding air. The types of microplastic particles identified relate to common plastic wrapping materials.”

The majority of microplastic is PET, which would relate to blister packs, and polypropylene, which may come from surgical gowns, hairnets and drapes for patients.

This study is the latest by the team in Hull which has already reported microplastics in abundance in outdoor and indoor environments, as well as in human lungs.

Other studies have also detected microplastics in the colon and blood, but until now no studies have quantified microplastic levels in a hospital environment, the researchers said.

The study in surgical environments captured atmospheric microplastics for 12 hours per day in both operating theatres and anaesthetic rooms for seven days, on both working and non-working days.

“Although we know microplastics are in the air in a variety of settings, we can’t yet say what the consequences are or whether microplastics are harmful to health. Researchers have yet to establish this,“ Rotchell said.

“We do know that microplastics cause immune response-type reactions, such as inflammation in cell or tissue-based experiments. This study also highlights another route of exposure that differs from either inhalation or ingestion via our diet. In knowing the numbers and characteristics of the microplastics found in this study, we can now conduct more realistic cell type experiments to establish possible health impacts.”

Dr Daniel Field, lead investigator, said: “The invention of plastics was revolutionary for the surgical environment. The fact you can vacuum pack equipment provides minimal risk to the patient and, as doctors, our sole duty is to protect patients.

“The amount of plastic used in operating theatres across Europe is astoundingly high – you can’t ignore it. We are producing a lot of plastic - much of it sterile, single-use plastic and you can use 10-20 of these in a single operation just to take out a section of the lung, for example.

“While we do not yet know the actual health impacts of microplastics, if any, single-use plastic is essential for the NHS that we see today. That isn’t to say the NHS isn’t moving forward with goals and schemes in order to limit single-use plastics elsewhere.”

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