Particles of plastic invading our bodies

by Rhys Blakely

The scourge of plastic pollution has spread to the human gut. Researchers have found “microplastic” particles in the digestive systems of people across the globe.

Nine of the 10 most common types of plastics were discovered in stool samples from individuals from eight countries.

The findings prompted calls for research into whether microplastics, particles less than 5mm long, are absorbed by the body, and their effects, which are yet to be studied in depth.

“This confirms what we have long suspected — plastics ultimately reach the human gut,”

said study leader Philipp Schwabl, of the Medical University of Vienna.

Studies on animals have suggested particles are capable of entering the blood stream, the lymphatic system and may 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,” Dr Schwabl said.

Microplastics have been found in tap water, bottled water, seafood, beer and honey. Alistair Boxall, of the University of York, said: “We will also be exposed to particles from house dust, food packaging and the use of plastic bottles. It’s inevitable that at least some of these things will get into our lungs and digestive systems.”

Richard Thompson, of the University of Plymouth, said: “One or two particles of plastic are probably not a problem. A lot could be.” He said in the time it took to eat a meal at home it was likely plastic particles in the air would have drifted on to it.

Researchers from the Medical University of Vienna and Environment Agency Austria recruited eight subjects for a pilot study. Each supplied stool samples and kept a diary of what they ate. Every sample tested positive for microplastics. On average, researchers found 20 microplastic particles in 10g of excrement. They looked for particles between 50 and 500 micrometres. Fragments of polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate were most common. Those substances are used to wrap food, in drinks bottles and in clothing. The researchers did not look for smaller particles or where particles came from.

Sian Sutherland, of A Plastic Planet, which wants a reduction in the use of plastics, said: “We know that plastic microfibres ingested by fish carry toxins that migrate beyond the gut to other tissue. Why do we think humans will not be affected in the same way? Plastic is the tobacco of our generation and it is time we knew the truth of its impact.”