Plastic found in human faeces

A study of human excreta around the world confirms that plastic has entered the human food chain.

A global study found an average of 20 pieces of microplastic per 10 grams of stools. Image: Pixabay
A global study by Austrian researchers found an average of 20 pieces of microplastic per 10 grams of human stools. Image: Pixabay

Plastic has been found in human faeces for the first time.

A study of eight people in Japan, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom and Austria found an average of 20 pieces of microplastic per 10 grams of stools.

The study by researchers at Medical University of Vienna and the Environment Agency Austria revealed polypropylene, which is used to make food packaging, and polyethylene terephthalate, the material that makes plastic bottles, to be the most commonly found types of plastic in the faeces samples.

Microplastics are pieces of plastic smaller than 5 milimetres in diameter formed by plastic breaking down, typically in the ocean where plastic debris most commonly ends up.

Dr. Philipp Schwabl, lead researcher for the study, said the findings confirmed what has long been suspected—that discarded plastics ultimately reach the human gut.

Though the impact of ingesting plastic is largely unknown, it may affect the immune response of the gut or aid the transmission of toxins, Schwabl suggested. The smallest microplastic particles are capable of entering the blood stream, lymphatic system and may even reach the liver, he said.

Now that we have first evidence for microplastics inside humans, we need further research to understand what this means for human health.

Dr. Philipp Schwabl, researcher and physician scientist, division of gastroenterology and hepatology, Medical University of Vienna

The research emerges a few days after study by Incheon University and Greenpeace East Asia found that over 90 per cent of sampled salt brands globally contained microplastics, with the highest amounts recorded in salt brands in Asia.

The study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, suggested that the average adult eats about 2,000 pieces of microplastic a year in the salt they add to their meals.

The largest amount of microplastics was found in a sea salt sample from Indonesia, the world’s second largest marine polluting nation. The salt samples from Indonesia contained an average of 13,629 pieces of microplastics per kilogram of salt. Salt samples from Taiwan and China recorded the next highest volumes of plastic found.

Microplastic concentrations were found to be highest in sea salt, followed by lake salt and rock salt.

The study analysed 39 salt brands from 21 countries, and found only three of these brands were completely plastic free. An average of 506 microplastics was found per kilogram of salt sampled in this study. Greenpeace would not reveal the brands studied.

“The findings suggest that human ingestion of microplastics via marine products is strongly related to plastic emissions in a given region,” said Professor Kim Seung Kyu, a marine science professor at Incheon National University and author of the study. 

“Recent studies have found plastics in seafood, and tap water, and now in salt. It’s clear that there is no escape from this plastics crisis, especially as it continues to leak into our waterways and oceans,” said Mikyoung Kim, campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia.

Microplastics have been found in the airbottled watermusselschickens, honey and beer.

Greenpeace’s study comes the week after a global study of beaches, waterways and parks found Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé to be the world’s biggest corporate plastic polluters, with Coca-Cola topping the list.  

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