You are probably familiar with the images of sea creatures washing up on shore with bellies full of plastic material. Now, it seems humans may be facing a similar situation. A new study released by researchers at the Medical University of Vienna and the Environment Agency Austria found microplastics in human stool samples from eight countries including Finland, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
“It is important that people realize the study only had eight total participants, so it is impossible to draw any major conclusions,” says Christopher Lieu, MD, GI oncologist and University of Colorado Cancer Center’s deputy associate director for clinical research. “That being said, the results are certainly intriguing.”
According to the National Ocean Service, micro plastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than five millimeters big, or the size of a sesame seed. These tiny pieces of plastic can be found in every day items such as beauty products (exfoliating scrubs), toothpaste, and other personal items. Larger plastic items that break down over time also create microplastics. Smaller pieces can float in the air.
So how did the people in the unprecedented study manage to consume plastic? The original study suggests that the participants were exposed to plastics by eating food that was packaged in plastic material and drinking from plastic water bottles. It was also noted that the participants did not change their diet during the duration of the study.
Now, the question at hand is whether or not these microplastics have a negative effect, or any affect, on human health.
According to the studies lead researcher Dr. Philipp Schwabl of the Medical University of Vienna “‘The concern is whether microplastics might be “entering the blood stream, lymphatic system and … even reach the liver.’”
Schwabl also noted that in animal and fish studies, microplastics have been shown to cause intestinal damage and liver stress. It is not yet known whether or not these plastics increase a person’s risk of cancer, but there is already talk that this may be a cause of gastrointestinal issues in young people, including the rise of young colon cancer diagnoses.
“If we are ingesting these microplastics the potential harmful side-effects are unknown,” says Lieu. “This is an area of research need, and specifically for us, we will be interested in seeing if this has affect’s our patients cancer risk.”