HEMS 2: Are microplastics in the air we breathe a threat to human health?

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Applications have now closed for our 2021/2 Vice Chancellor's PhD Scholarships. We will contact applicants in due course.

This scholarship has been developed in conjunction with The DTA Future Societies programme, which will support solutions-driven research that tackles the world’s most pressing challenges, with projects guided by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Faculty: Health, Education, Medicine and Social Care

Supervisors: Dr Mohammad Najlah, Dr Dannielle Green and Dr Clett Erridge

Interview date: 27 May 2021

Microplastics (plastic particles <1mm) are the most widespread and abundant form of solid waste on Earth. The concentration of microplastics in air within indoor human environments is, however, orders of magnitude greater than those outside and these microplastics can be inhaled by humans. The average human adult potentially inhales 74,000 to 121,000 microplastics per year. The majority (~90%) of these microplastics are synthetic fibres from textiles which are shed into the air during wear.

Occupational exposures to airborne microplastic fibres amongst workers in the textile and flocking industries have been found to be associated with interstitial lung disease, cardiac and autoimmune disease, and lung cancer. However, the mechanisms by which microplastics may accumulate within the different compartments of the lung, and their potential impact on pathways relevant to disease, remain poorly understood.

Our pilot data shows that plastic microfibres are directly linked to increased production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. This may indicate a harmful effect of inhaled microplastic fibres.

Research questions:

  1. What are the best methods to set up study conditions resembling contaminated environments?
  2. Where will microfibres accumulate within the respiratory system (lung and airways)? What is the expected impact of such disposition?
  3. Using in vitro immunology assays, what are the potential immune responses induced by the inhalation of microfibres?


  1. A mist or dust of microplastics/ microfibres will be created to mimic contaminated environments. Particles size and Polydispersity will be assessed using laser diffraction to establish study conditions.
  2. The accumulation of microplastics/microfibres in the lung and airways will be assessed using advanced simulation techniques used in pulmonary delivery. Dangerous microfibers (i.e., those which may accumulate in the deep lung) the air will be identified.
  3. The impact of various types of microfibre on the activation of inflammatory signalling pathways in macrophages and the lung alveolar epithelial cell (AEC)-line A549 will be examined. Methods used here will include mammalian cell culture, ELISA, flow cytometry, qPCR and fluorescence microscopy.
  4. Alternative natural textiles will be compared to their synthetic equivalents.

Funding notes

This successful applicant for this project will receive a Vice Chancellor’s PhD Scholarship which covers Home tuition fees and provides a UKRI equivalent minimum annual stipend for three years. For 2021/2 this will be £15,609 per year. The award is subject to the successful candidate meeting the scholarship terms and conditions. Please note that the University asserts the right to claim any intellectual property generated by research it funds.

Download the full terms and conditions.