Microplastic found in humans for first time leading to health fears

Sarah Knapton
Plastic is washed into the ocean where it disintegrates into tiny particles   - Sarah Knapton

Microplastics have been found in humans for the first time leading to fears they could be causing a raft of health and fertility problems.

Although previous studies have calculated that Europeans could be ingesting as many as 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic a year, by consuming seafood or accidentally eating bits of packaging, it has never been proven until now.

Scientists at the Austrian Environment Agency and the University of Vienna who analysed the stool samples of people from eight countries around the world, including Britain, found every one contained microplastics.

In some cases nine different types of plastic were found in just one sample. On average, the researchers found 20 microplastic particles per 10g of human waste.

“This is the first study of its kind and confirms what we have long suspected, that plastics ultimately reach the human gut” said lead researcher Dr Philipp Schwabl, who is presenting the findings at the annual United European Gastoenterology meeting.

“Of particular concern 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 bloodstream, 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.”

Microplastics have already been found in marine animals who mistake them for plankton Credit: Getty Images

Microplastics are small particles of plastic less than 5mm and are used in various products for specific purposes - such as microbeads before they were banned. They also form when large pieces of plastic break down through weathering, degradation or wear and tear.  

Among the plastics found were polyethylene-terephthalate (PET), the chemical term for polyester, which is used widely in plastic bottle manufacturer, and polypropylene (PP), which is commonly used in household appliances and the automotive industry.

Microplastics are shedded from everything from synthetic clothing to road paint and studies show they are now present in 83 per cent of tap water samples, all German beers, and even in European rainwater.

Experts fear that the microplastics in the body may damage the immune system, trigger inflammation, and can help carry toxins such as mercury or pesticides into the body. In sea mammals like whales, it is believed plastics are damaging fertility.

The new pilot study looked at eight individuals from Finland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, the UK and Austria, each of whom was asked to keep a food diary in the week before sampling.

The diaries showed that all participants were exposed to plastics during the week either by consuming plastic wrapped foods or drinking from plastic bottles. Six of them consumed sea fish, which often consume microplastics which they mistake for plankton.

Plastic breaks down in the water to create tiny pieces of microplastic which can be easily ingested 

Up to nine different plastics, sized between 50 and 500 micrometres were found in each sample.

Dr Stephanie Wright, Research Fellow, King’s College London, said: “The fact that so many different polymers were measured suggests a wide range of contamination sources, although the usual culprits polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) were most common, and these are the plastics which often comprise plastic bottles/lid counterparts, among other items.

“What is of concern is whether this size range reflects our true exposure, or if a smaller sizes are being retained or is able to cross over the gut wall.

“What may be of greater concern for these large microplastics, is whether any associated chemical contaminants leach off during gut passage and accumulate in tissues.”

Sian Sutherland, co-founder A Plastic Planet, said: "Plastic is in our air, our soil, our water and of course our oceans.  Now we know it is also in our bodies in significant quantities.

"Many plastics contain chemicals that scientists believe are disruptors of our endocrine system. Endocrine disruption can significantly affect our health; our immune system and even fertility.

"The answer is very simple. We need to dramatically reduce the use of plastic where there are already so many alternatives available and it starts with eliminating plastic in food and drink packaging."