For many years scientists and health experts have been speculating about the potential health implications of ingesting microplastics, the tiny particles of the processed material that can end up in our food stream through a variety of ways. A new pilot study has confirmed what we all have feared - not only are we taking microplastic particles into our bodies, we are also putting them out: yes, we have plastic in our poop.
The findings were presented at the United European Gastroenterology organisation’s annual UEG Week. Researchers from Vienna and the Environment Agency Austria maintain that every single stool sample taken from eight participants across the world - including Finland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Polan, Russia, the UK and Austria - tested positive for the presence of microplastics and that up to nine different types of plastic were identified.
“This is the first study of its kind and confirms what we have long suspected, that plastics ultimately reach the human gut. Of particular concern is what this means to us, and especially patients with gastrointestinal diseases,” explained lead researcher Philipp Schwabl in a press release.
As part of the study, each participant was asked to keep a food diary for one week leading up to a stool sample. Their entries revealed that every one of them was exposed to plastics by consuming plastic wrapped foods or drinking from plastic bottles. None of them were vegetarians and six consumed sea fish. It's unclear how the plastics made their way into the participants' bodies - whether it was from consuming items wrapped in plastics, eating fish that are infamous for having microplastics in them, or a variety of other ways. (Here are 6 surprising places microplastics are found.)
Researchers detected up to nine different plastics, sized between 50 and 500 micrometers. The most common were polypropylene (bottle caps) and polyethylene terephthalate (commonly used to make plastic bags). On average, the researchers found a whopping 20 microplastic particles per 10g of stool.
The health effects of ingesting microplastics
So how worried should we about the possible health complications of ingesting these microplastics?
It's unclear, as Dr Schwabl admits that currently there are no human studies that answer this question. “Now that we have first evidence for microplastics inside humans, we need further research to understand what this means for human health,” Dr Schwabl told Prevention in an email.
However, he does mention that animal studies do exist showing that “microplastic particles are capable of entering the bloodstream, lymphatic system, and may even reach the liver.” They have also shown that microplastics may cause intestinal damage, as well as distortion of iron absorption and hepatic stress.
While the majority of the population’s health may not be seriously impacted by the ingestion of microplastics, he specifies that patients with diseases of the gastrointestinal tract might be more susceptible to foreign microparticles passing the gut.
He hopes that the findings of this study have an impact on plastic production at the global level, as it directly correlates with plastic contamination. "It is likely that the amount of plastic contamination may rise further if mankind does not change the current situation,” he says.