Photodegradation of Microplastics by ZnO Nanoparticles with Resulting Cellular and Subcellular Responses

Research output: Journal Publications and ReviewsRGC 21 - Publication in refereed journalpeer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8118–8129
Journal / PublicationEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number21
Online published16 May 2023
Publication statusPublished - 30 May 2023


Both zinc oxide nanoparticles (ZnO NPs) and microplastics (MPs) were extracted from one commercial sunscreen, while other ingredients were removed based on the “like dissolves like” principle. MPs were further extracted by acidic digestion of ZnO NPs using HCl and characterized as spherical particles of approximately 5 μm with layered sheets in an irregular shape on the surface. Although MPs were stable in the presence of simulated sunlight and water after 12 h of exposure, ZnO NPs promoted the photooxidation by producing hydroxyl radicals, with a 2.5-fold increase in the carbonyl index of the degree of surface oxidation. As a result of surface oxidation, spherical MPs were more soluble in water and fragmented to irregular shapes with sharp edges. We then compared the cytotoxicity of primary MPs and secondary MPs (25-200 mg/L) to the HaCaT cell line based on viability loss and subcellular damages. The cellular uptake of MPs transformed by ZnO NPs was enhanced by over 20%, and MPs caused higher cytotoxicity compared with the pristine ones, as evidenced by a 46% lower cell viability, 220% higher lysosomal accumulation, 69% higher cellular reactive oxygen species, 27% more mitochondrial loss, and 72% higher mitochondrial superoxide at 200 mg/L. Our study for the first time explored the activation of MPs by ZnO NPs derived from commercial products and revealed the high cytotoxicity caused by secondary MPs, providing new evidence on the effects of secondary MPs on human health. © 2023 American Chemical Society.

Research Area(s)

  • cytotoxicity, photodegradation, secondary microplastics, subcellular toxicity, zinc oxide