It is something scientists have wondered and suspected since microplastics were first detected in seafood, salt and bottled water – are people eating plastic particles? Humans must be consuming plastic because everywhere scientists have looked for them they have found tiny bits of degraded plastic. Well, new research provides evidence of this being a reality – Microplastic has been found in human poop.

The suspicion humans are consuming tiny plastic particles has been confirmed. The next question is whether or not it’s bad for our body. Scientists and researchers are currently working out the possible health risks. They are looking for broader patterns of human microplastic exposure and the potential associated health impacts.

Microplastics include any fragments smaller than five millimeters. They are the result of the breakdown of larger debris, such as bottles, in the environment. They are also made up of fibers shed by synthetic fabrics, as well as plastic beads added to some cosmetics.

These particles have turned up everywhere from the seafloor to farm soil to the air around us. It is like dust. That is why it is so easily ingested. People are most likely even breathing in plastic from the air! This report is the first direct samples from humans showing this is all happening.

 

The study co-author Bettina Liebmann of Environment Agency Austria said that stools just seemed like the most promising place to look in humans. But it was not an easy task. She and Philipp Schwabl, of the Medical University of Vienna, spent weeks developing a method that would break down the organic matter present in feces without affecting any microplastics that might be there in order to isolate the plastic from the samples.

A stool sample prepared on a filter ready for analysis to detect microplastics. Credit: S. Koeppel Umweltbundesamt – Environment Agency Austria

The team collected samples from eight participants across Europe and Asia. They were previously instructed on how to minimize contamination from, for example, the fibers that are continuously floating in the air. The scientists analyzed the stools for microplastics ranging in size from 50 micrometers (almost twice the diameter of a human skin cell) to five millimeters. They detected nine of the ten common types of plastic polymers they looked for including polypropylene (used, for example, in bottle caps), polyethylene terephthalate (used in drink bottles) and polystyrene (used in food containers).

“We were quite astonished that we found microplastics in every single sample…confirming that we are surrounded by plastics in our everyday life.” – Liebmann

They presented this research in Vienna at United European Gastroenterology Week, an annual meeting of specialists in digestive health. They want this to serves as a jumping-off point for further research.

Liebmann and Schwabl hope to launch a larger study with more participants. This time they will focus on looking for any links between the amounts, types and sizes of plastic particles, along with where people live, what they eat and other lifestyle factors. They will also search for smaller sizes of plastic—which are the most likely to be able to penetrate the gut lining and enter the circulatory system and other organs. Such an occurrence is likely as it has been found to happen with other nanosize, man-made particles already.

Liebmann does admit that the fact that our bodies are excreting at least some of the particles (at the upper end of the size range) is a good sign. What remains unclear is how what is coming out compares with what might still be left in the body. Further work needs to be done to explore what, if any, negative health impacts microplastics might have on the body via physical damage to the gut or other organs.

Martin Wagner, an ecotoxicologist at Norwegian University of Science and Technology who was not involved in the new study said:

“We need to know, is it really toxic? We’re blind on that.”

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