The Grapevine

Tiny Plastic Pieces Are Finding Their Way To Your Stomach, Study Finds

It is an unfortunate reality that plastics have contaminated our environment to a great degree. Now, in the first study of its kind, researchers from Austria have discovered the presence of microplastics in human poop as well.

Microplastics refer to tiny particles of plastic, ranging from 10 nanometers to 5 millimeters in diameter. In other words, they could be small enough to be invisible to the naked eye. The new findings suggest that we may be involuntarily ingesting these plastics, the consequence of which remains unclear for now. 

The Medical University of Vienna and the Environment Agency Austria recruited a small group of participants from around the world. The group comprised of eight healthy individuals from Finland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Austria.

They were monitored with the help of food logs which revealed what they were eating during the week before their stool samples were collected. While only six of them consumed fish during this period, none of the participants were vegetarians. They also consumed foods that were wrapped in plastic packaging and drank from plastic bottles.

On average, the researchers found 20 microplastic particles per 10 grams of stool. Out of the ten types of plastics they tested for, nine were found. Among them, polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) were the most common.

The question that arises is an obvious one: Where exactly are the microplastics coming from? The answer cannot be determined from this study alone due to the small sample size.

On one hand, it is possible the wraps and packaging may be playing a role. Previously, studies have also shown how high levels of phthalates were found in urine samples of people who ate fast food more often.

Another cause may be tied to the dietary pattern as seafood consumption may be another medium for plastic to make its way into the human gut. Research has shown that a large number of fish are ingesting microplastics which could indirectly contaminate food supplies.

"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," said lead researcher Dr. Philipp Schwabl, who will present the findings at the 26th United European Gastroenterology conference in Vienna, Austria, on Oct. 23.

"While the highest plastic concentrations in animal studies have been found in the gut, the smallest microplastic particles are capable of entering the bloodstream, lymphatic system and may even reach the liver. Now that we have first evidence for microplastics inside humans, we need further research to understand what this means for human health," Schwabl said.