They found plastic in _what_?

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published November 13, 2018

Key Takeaways

Plastic accumulation in the ocean is grabbing headlines these days. But a new study shows that plastic is turning up in another alarming place. Hazard a guess?

In a small study, researchers from the Medical University of Vienna found microplastics in the feces of eight participants from various European countries. For 7 days, participants kept food logs. All were exposed to plastics via consumption of plastic-wrapped foods and/or drinking from plastic bottles. Six consumed sea fish, and none was a vegetarian.

But what does this finding mean? Do microplastics in poop portend a bigger problem?

Microplastics defined

Microplastics are little bits of plastic—smaller than 5 mm—that are used for a variety of manufacturing purposes. They are introduced into the environment in two ways: 1) direct, intentional addition to a product and 2) wear and tear of plastic products, like synthetic textiles.

Cosmetics, personal-care products, detergents, cleaning products, paints, products used in the oil and gas industries, and abrasive blasting products all contain microplastics.

To the general public, however, microplastics are probably best known for being added as microbeads to skin care products. These microbeads serve as abrasives to exfoliate the skin. Microbeads also mediate the viscosity, stability, and appearance of a product.

Oxo-plastics are conventional plastics that contain additives that enhance the oxidation of these plastics under select conditions. They are in agricultural films, trash bags, food packaging, and landfill covers. When they break down, these products introduce microplastics into the environment.

Microplastics and health

Microplastics could affect human health by crossing the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and interfering with the tolerance and immune function of the gut. These microplastics could accumulate and release toxic chemicals.

The smallest microplastic particles are able to enter the bloodstream and lymphatic system, as well as make their way to the liver. Furthermore, experts are concerned with the effects of larger microplastics on GI diseases.

Microplastics in the environment

Between 2% and 5% of plastics find their way to the ocean, with microplastics among them. These plastics are ingested by fish and introduced into the food chain.

High levels of microplastics have been found in tuna, lobster, and shrimp. In addition to actual manufacturing processes, plastic packaging also introduces microplastics into the food chain.  

The European Union (EU) is considering a restriction on distribution, marketing, or use of products with intentionally added microplastic particles or products that are designed to release microplastic particles, such as nutrient prills (small spheres made of coated fertilizer).

Currently, the EU is investigating the issue to figure out whether microplastics pose a risk to health and the environment, as well as the socio-economic impact of restrictions.

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