CONFIRMED: Microplastics now being found in our poop … What does that mean for us?
03/28/2019 // Tracey Watson // Views

It’s no secret that our planet is drowning in plastic. Since Leo Baekeland’s 1907 invention of bakelite – the first type of plastic – society has become increasingly reliant on it for packaging and for a host of other purposes. Since plastic does not decompose it has to be dumped somewhere, and about 8 million tons of it end up in the ocean each year via the streams, rivers and other waterways that eventually end up there.

After it reaches the ocean, exposure to wave action and ultraviolet (UV) radiation breaks the plastic down into smaller and smaller pieces. These tiny pieces, known as microplastics, are so small (smaller than a grain of rice) that they end up being ingested by fish, which in turn, are consumed by humans.

In addition, as reported by Scientific American, samples of microplastics have been found on the seabed, in farm soil, and even in the air we breathe. After previous studies confirmed their presence in salt, bottled water and seafood, Bettina Liebmann of Environment Agency Austria, and Philipp Schwabl of the Medical University of Vienna, set out to determine whether people are inadvertently consuming microplastics and then excreting some or all of them through their poop. The special stool test they developed confirmed the worst: Microplastics were found in every single sample tested.

The research team presented their findings at the United European Gastroenterology Week, held in Vienna in October last year. (Related: Microplastics found in 73 percent of fish in the Northwest Atlantic, according to latest research.)


The proof is in the poop

Detecting microplastics in stool samples is a tricky business, so the researchers started their study by taking several weeks to develop a method that would break down organic matter in feces without affecting any microplastics present in the samples. (Related: Microplastics are invading our farm lands, and researchers say the problem is even bigger than they first believed.)

Scientific American reported on the researchers’ methodology:

The team collected samples from eight participants across Europe and Asia, who were instructed on how to minimize contamination from, for example, the fibers that are continuously floating in the air—the bane of many microplastics researchers. 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.

The scientists were truly surprised by what the tests revealed.

“We were quite astonished that we found microplastics in every single sample,” Liebmann noted, adding that the tests “confirm that we are surrounded by plastics in our everyday life.”

Nine of the 10 most common plastic polymers were detected in the samples, including polypropylene, used in bottle caps; polystyrene, commonly found in food containers; and polyethylene terephthalate, used in drink bottles.

More research needed

The research team believes that this study demonstrates the need for further research. They hope to embark on a larger study to examine more closely how factors like location and lifestyle affect microplastic consumption. They also stress the need for further studies into whether humans are consuming even smaller microplastics than those in the initial study. These tiny particles are particularly dangerous, as they can penetrate the gut lining and enter the body’s circulatory system and several different organs.

In addition, while the initial study would seem to indicate that humans are excreting the plastics they inadvertently consume, further studies are needed to determine whether some of it is being retained inside the body, and what those health implications might be.

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