Each year, humans around the world produce about 882 billion pounds of plastic waste, and about 80 percent of it ends up in landfills or in the natural environment. Now, scientists are beginning to study the effects of microplastics on people, and it turns out that they are showing up in human poop after contaminating our food.
Microplastics are the smallest particles of plastic waste — so small that most are invisible to the human eye. They are found in most bottled and tap water, soil and sea, rock and lake salts.
A small pilot study being presented this week at the 26th annual United European Gastroenterology conference in Vienna, Austria looked at stool samples from eight people from eight different countries, and every sample tested positive for up to nine different types of plastic. Researchers from the Medical University of Vienna and the Environmental Agency Austria conducted the study and found an average of 20 particles of plastic per 10 grams of stool.
“Personally, I did not expect that each sample would … [test] … positive,” said Dr. Philipp Schwabl of the Medical University of Vienna and lead researcher of the study. “Is it harmful to human health? That’s a very important question, and we are planning further investigations.”
In this first-of-its-kind study, researchers found that all eight samples contained polypropylene and polyethylene-terephthalate particles, which both make up a majority of plastic bottles and plastic bottle caps.
According to NPR, each person kept a regular diet and maintained a food diary during the week before the stool samples were collected. Everyone had been exposed to plastics via beverages in plastic bottles and foods wrapped in plastic. No participants were vegetarian, and six of the eight had consumed wild fish.
Schwabl said the concern is whether or not microplastics are entering the bloodstream, the lymphatic system and possibly the liver. In studies of animals, microplastics have caused intestinal damage and liver stress.
Now that this initial study has shown we are ingesting microplastics, two questions remain: what is staying in our bodies rather than leaving as waste, and what impact will the microplastics have on our health? Schwabl said that he and his colleagues are applying for funding for a larger study, so they can attempt to replicate their findings.
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