Tiny particles of plastic are easy to find in fish, shellfish, whales, birds, and flying insects. It’s no surprise they’ve now been found in people for the first time.
To be specific, in human feces.
Where is it coming from? Well, practically everywhere. Plastic is found in the oceans, in freshwater supplies and even in the air we breathe. There seems to be no way around eating, drinking or inhaling the stuff.
But if you ask what specific harm all this pollution is doing to our bodies, no scientist seems to know!
This ignorance may prove to be a deadly mistake. . .
Every Person Tests Positive
The landmark study was conducted by the Medical University of Vienna together with the Environmental Agency, Austria.
The researchers enrolled eight participants from eight different countries in Europe and Asia. Each kept a food diary for seven days before samples of excrement were taken.
Fragments of plastic called microplastics were found in every single one of them. These forms of plastic can be as large as a grain of rice, or too small to be seen without a microscope. On average there were 20 microplastics for every third of an ounce of stool.
The study tested for ten varieties of plastic. As many as nine were identified in the volunteers, the most common being polypropylene and polyethylene-terepthalate. These occur mostly in foods and liquids with plastic packaging. For purposes of the study, the participants kept food diaries, which showed they ate foods wrapped in plastic and drank out of plastic bottles (after all, who doesn’t?). Six of the eight also ate fish.
This is a tiny sample of people, but I doubt if a large study would reveal anything very different.
The research was led by gastroenterologist Philipp Schwabl, who said, “This is the first study of its kind and confirms what we have long suspected — that plastics ultimately reach the human gut.” He said he found the results “astonishing,” as he did not expect every sample to test positive.
“Of particular concern,” he continued, “is what this means to us, and especially patients with gastrointestinal diseases.
“While the highest plastic concentrations in animal studies have been found in the gut, the smallest microplastic particles are capable of entering the blood stream, 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.”
Plastic is Everywhere
Commenting on the study, Alistair Boxall, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of York, England, said he was “not at all surprised,” because microplastics have been found in bottled and tap water, beer, and fish.
We are also exposed to particles in household dust, food packaging and plastic bottles, he said. He thought it “inevitable that at least some of these things will get into our lungs and digestive systems.”
Another significant source comes from fibers in clothes made from polyester and acrylic. These make their way into the air and also into freshwater systems by way of washing machines.
Other research, conducted in France, suggests indoor air is more polluted because fragmentation arises from friction, heat, and light focused on objects containing plastic in the home, such as carpets, curtains, furniture and synthetic clothing.
A number of studies exist to confirm the level of plastic pollution. Recently, 83 percent of tap water samples worldwide were found to contain plastic — the highest concentration being in the United States — and out of 39 brands of table salt tested globally, 36 contained microplastics.
A type of microplastic called microbeads, added to personal care products, cosmetics and some over-the-counter drugs, have already been banned in the US. This is welcome, but considering that Americans throw away an estimated 33 million tons of plastic in a single year, this reform barely scratches the surface of the problem.
Some experts are concerned that the particles may harm the immune system, trigger inflammation, and release chemical contaminants during their passage through the gut. If true, it’s likely the chemicals will end up in tissues. There is no hard evidence however, because little is known about the effects of plastic in the human body.
Reduce Contamination in Your Life
There is no way to avoid this form of pollution, but you can reduce your plastic intake with these steps:
- Eat more fresh food, but avoid fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic
- Avoid ready-made meals and fast foods wrapped in plastic
- Heat food or drinks in the microwave using glass or ceramic bowls or dishes (…not that I recommend use of a microwave)
- Don’t drink water from plastic bottles; use glass or stainless steel instead. Filter tap water with brands that are verified to remove microplastics
- Use glass, ceramic, stainless steel or wooden containers to store food
- Carry purchases in cloth or canvas bags
- Wear natural fiber clothes like cotton, wool and linen
- Use a high-quality air filter in your home