New research raises questions about the potential health risks associated with microplastic particles from food packages that may end up inside the body, after a study found that tiny pieces of plastic are found in nearly everyone’s stool.
A European pilot study is the first to confirm microplastics in humans, detecting them in the feces of people from eight countries around the world.
Researchers used a small sample of eight test subjects, with one person from each country, including Finland, the Netherlands, Poland, Austria, Italy, the United Kingdom, Russia and Japan. In total, the group included three women and five men ranging in age from 33 to 65.
Each person kept a food diary during the week. Then, they provided a stool sample at the end of the week.
Lab tests confirmed microplastic particles were found in each participants feces. The samples included particles from 9 out of 10 plastic types with sizes ranging from 50 to 500 microns. In comparison, a human hair is about 50 microns.
On average, each person had 20 particles of tiny plastics in every 3.5 ounces of stool.
More than 95% of the particles came from plastics used in food packaging and food storage. Those plastics included polypropylene, which is used in bottle caps; polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is used in drink bottles; polystyrene, which is found in plastic utensils and cups; and polyethylene, which is used in plastic bags and storage containers.
The diaries of the participants indicated all participants had consumed plastic-wrapped foods or drank from plastic bottles during the week. Six participants consumed ocean fish.
Researchers warn plastics are entering the human gut through the food we eat, the liquids we drink, and the sea life we consume, raising questions about the potential health risks.
A recent study indicated high amounts of plasticizers, known as phthalates, are found in restaurant food. People who ate out more often ingested 35% more phthalates than those who ate at home. One-third of all fast food containers and wrappers contain the chemicals.
Many plastics and food wrappers and drink bottles contain chemicals which are harmful to human health. Exposure to bisphenoal-A (BPA), a common chemical used to manufacture water bottles, has been linked to infertility and impaired brain growth.
Phthalates and other chemicals used to manufacture plastics have also been implicated in many health side effects. Some studies have linked the chemicals to altered thyroid function, increased risk of high blood pressure, and impaired endocrine function, including early menopause.
While some previous studies have found microplastics in animals, this study is the first to detect them in humans. The researchers say that although it is a small scale pilot study, it demonstrates the need for further research in this area. Studies focusing on microplastics in animals have shown altered intestinal function and effects to the lymphatic system and liver. It is important to determine if these effects are similar in humans.
In the meantime, the ubiquitous use of plastic food products should be reduced and sustainable alternatives should be introduced, the researchers urged.
The findings were presented at the Untied European Gastroenterology annual meeting in Vienna. The study is considered preliminary until it is published in a peer-reviewed journal.