Microplastics from Disposable Face Masks Pose Genetic Risks to Onion Cells

Jenn Hoskins
9th June, 2024

Microplastics from Disposable Face Masks Pose Genetic Risks to Onion Cells

Image Source: Natural Science News, 2024

Key Findings

  • The study by Vellore Institute of Technology found that disposable face masks release microplastics (MPs) into the environment
  • These microplastics, mainly made of polypropylene, increase in concentration with prolonged exposure
  • The MPs from face masks cause significant toxicity to the roots of the plant Allium cepa, primarily due to oxidative stress
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a significant increase in the use of disposable face masks (DFMs), which has subsequently raised concerns about environmental pollution due to the release of microplastics (MPs). While previous studies have primarily focused on the impact of MPs from DFMs on aquatic ecosystems, the effects on terrestrial plants have not been thoroughly investigated. A recent study conducted by the Vellore Institute of Technology aims to address this gap by examining the toxicity of whole mask leachates (WMLs) on Allium cepa, a model terrestrial plant[1]. The study utilized various analytical techniques such as Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscopy (FE-SEM), Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FT-IR), and Raman spectroscopy to identify MPs in WMLs. The researchers found that these MPs were predominantly composed of polypropylene, a common polymer used in mask manufacturing. The concentration of smaller-sized MPs increased with the duration of leachate release, indicating that prolonged exposure could lead to higher levels of MP contamination. The cytogenotoxic effects of WMLs on A. cepa root cells were found to be MP concentration-dependent. Specifically, the study observed cytogenotoxic effects of 72%, 50%, and 31% on 1-day, 5-day, and 11-day WMLs, respectively. This toxicity was attributed to elevated oxidative stress levels, which increased by 19%, 45%, and 70% for the same time points. Interestingly, the heavy metal content in the WMLs was negligible, suggesting that the observed toxicity was primarily due to MPs rather than heavy metals. This study builds on earlier research that highlighted the environmental and health risks posed by microplastic pollution. For instance, previous studies have shown that MPs can adversely affect aquatic biota and the entire environment[2]. Additionally, MPs have been found to induce oxidative stress in higher plants, affecting photosynthesis, metabolism, and genetic expression[3]. The current study extends these findings to terrestrial plants, demonstrating that DFMs are a significant source of MPs that can have detrimental effects on plant health. Moreover, the study's findings align with earlier research on the potential toxic substances in face masks. A previous investigation revealed that some face masks contain trace elements such as lead (Pb), copper (Cu), and zinc (Zn), which can leach out and pose health risks[4]. However, the negligible heavy metal content in the WMLs from the current study indicates that MPs are the primary concern for terrestrial plants. The research methods employed in this study are robust and comprehensive. By using FE-SEM, FT-IR, and Raman spectroscopy, the researchers were able to accurately characterize the MPs in the WMLs. These techniques provided detailed information on the size, composition, and concentration of MPs, enabling a thorough assessment of their impact on A. cepa root cells. The use of A. cepa as a model plant is also noteworthy, as it is a widely accepted bioindicator for evaluating cytogenotoxic effects. In conclusion, this study by the Vellore Institute of Technology highlights the environmental threat posed by disposable face masks due to the release of microplastics. The findings underscore the need for further research into the impact of MPs on terrestrial ecosystems and call for the development of effective waste management strategies to mitigate this emerging issue.



Main Study

1) Time dependent release of microplastics from disposable face masks poses cyto-genotoxic risks in Allium cepa.

Published 7th June, 2024


Related Studies

2) Surgical face masks as a potential source for microplastic pollution in the COVID-19 scenario.


3) Effects of micro(nano)plastics on higher plants and the rhizosphere environment.


4) Quantification of trace elements in surgical and KN95 face masks widely used during the SARS-COVID-19 pandemic.


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