Immunotoxicity and intestinal effects of nano- and microplastics: a review of the literature

Together with poor biodegradability and insufficient recycling, the massive production and use of plastics have led to widespread environmental contamination by nano- and microplastics. These particles accumulate across ecosystems – even in the most remote habitats – and are transferred through food chains, leading to inevitable human ingestion, that adds to the highest one due to food processes and packaging.

The present review aimed at providing a comprehensive overview of current knowledge regarding the effects of nano- and microplastics on intestinal homeostasis.

We conducted a literature search focused on the in vivo effects of nano- and microplastics on gut epithelium and microbiota, as well as on immune response.

Numerous animal studies have shown that exposure to nano- and microplastics leads to impairments in oxidative and inflammatory intestinal balance, and disruption of the gut’s epithelial permeability. Other notable effects of nano- and microplastic exposure include dysbiosis (changes in the gut microbiota) and immune cell toxicity. Moreover, microplastics contain additives, adsorb contaminants, and may promote the growth of bacterial pathogens on their surfaces: they are potential carriers of intestinal toxicants and pathogens that can potentially lead to further adverse effects.

Despite the scarcity of reports directly relevant to human, this review brings together a growing body of evidence showing that nano- and microplastic exposure disturbs the gut microbiota and critical intestinal functions. Such effects may promote the development of chronic immune disorders. Further investigation of this threat to human health is warranted.