Incineration-Generated Polyethylene Micro-Nanoplastics Increase Triglyceride Lipolysis and Absorption in an In Vitro Small Intestinal Epithelium Model

Environ Sci Technol. 2022 Sep 6;56(17):12288-12297. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.2c03195. Epub 2022 Aug 16.


Despite mounting evidence of micro-nanoplastics (MNPs) in food and drinking water, little is known of the potential health risks of ingested MNPs, and nothing is known of their potential impact on nutrient digestion and absorption. We assessed the effects of environmentally relevant secondary MNPs generated by incineration of polyethylene (PE-I), on digestion and absorption of fat in a high fat food model using a 3-phase in vitro simulated digestion coupled with a tri-culture small intestinal epithelium model. The presence of 400 μg/mL PE-I increased fat digestion by 33% and increased fat absorption by 147 and 145% 1 and 2 h after exposure. Analysis of the PE-I lipid corona during digestion revealed predominantly triacylglycerols with enrichment of fatty acids in the small intestinal phase. Protein corona analysis showed enrichment of triacylglycerol lipase and depletion of β-casein in the small intestinal phase. These findings suggest digestion of triacylglycerol by lipase on the surface of lipid-coated MNPs as a potential mechanism. Further studies are needed to investigate the mechanisms underlying the greater observed increase in fat absorption, to verify these results in an animal model, and to determine the MNP properties governing their effects on lipid digestion and absorption.

Keywords: fat absorption; fat digestion; incineration; ingestion; micro-nanoplastics; microplastics; nanoplastics; plastics; polyethylene.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Digestion
  • Incineration
  • Intestinal Absorption
  • Intestinal Mucosa / metabolism
  • Lipase / metabolism
  • Lipolysis*
  • Microplastics*
  • Polyethylene / metabolism
  • Triglycerides / metabolism


  • Microplastics
  • Triglycerides
  • Polyethylene
  • Lipase