Plastic production went full scale in the 1950s. Since then, we—as a species—have created an impressive 9 billion tons of the stuff. What is not impressive, however, is that studies suggest upwards of 76 percent of all plastics made since the 1950s has simply gone to waste. It ends up in landfills, of course, but it has also ended up in our planet’s oceans. We can even find it in just about all table salt.
As a matter of fact, a new study has managed to detect the presence of microplastics in human excrement for the very first time in history. For the study, researchers analyzed stool samples from participants hailing from Italy, Poland, Austria, Russia, Finland, the Netherlands, and the UK. According to researchers from the Medical University of Vienna and the Environment Agency, Austria found an average of 20 microplastic particles per 10g of human stool.
Furthermore, the researchers managed to identify nine different types of plastic, ranging in size from 50 to 500 micrometers. The most common forms of plastic they found were, of course, the most widely-used types: polyethylene-terephthalate (PET) and polypropylene (PP).
Lead researcher Phillip Schwabl explains, “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.”
In addition, Schwabl posits there is increased concern that these microplastics we consume could finesse their way into other parts of our bodies. He goes on to say, “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 the first evidence for microplastics inside humans, we need further research to understand what this means for human health.”
Indeed, this is just the beginning of our understanding in this realm. After all, this study is quite limited in scope because the sample size was very small. Schwabl also notes that we need to learn more about the ways diet and lifestyle contribute to our ingestion of microplastics.
At the end of the day, Schwabl advises, reducing plastic use and plastic packaging from food products might be in our best interests, but maybe it is more important to rethink how much plastic we use and how we can develop sustainable alternatives.