Tests reveal both tap water and bottled water1 contain microplastics, as does your household dust2 and many foods, especially seafood3,4 and sea salt,5 but also any food that has been stored in plastic packaging.
The suspicion that we’re consuming our own plastic pollution was recently reconfirmed when researchers reported the discovery of microplastic particles in human stool samples. The consequences of ingesting microscopic plastic bits and pieces is still relatively unknown.
But considering the fact that plastic will not degrade within a human lifetime, and that many of the chemicals used in the production of plastic are known endocrine disruptors, chances are the impact on human health may be greater than suspected.
Animal research has also shown microplastics affect the gut barrier and the composition of gut microbiota in mice, and that they have toxic effects on the liver in fish.
Microplastic Debris Found in Human Stool Samples
The study6,7,8,9 in question was done by researchers from the Medical University of Vienna in collaboration with the Austrian Environment Agency. The findings of this pilot study were presented October 23, 2018, at the annual United European Gastroenterology conference in Vienna. As reported by Salon magazine:10
“Eight people from Finland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom and Austria participated in the study. Each person kept a food diary the week before the stool sampling occurred which showed researchers that all participants were exposed to foods that were either wrapped in plastic, or they drank from plastic bottles. Six of the eight ate sea fish, too; none of them were vegetarians.”
The stool samples were tested for the presence of 10 different types of plastics, of which nine were found in the samples. On average, participants had 20 microplastic particles per 10 grams of stool.
The most common types of plastic were polypropylene (found in bottle caps), polyethylene terephthalate or PET (found in water bottles, plastic bags and textile fibers) and polystyrene (found in takeout food containers, cups and plastic utensils). The particles ranged in size from 50 micrometers (about the width of a human hair) to 500 micrometers. According to lead researcher Dr. Philipp Schwabl, who called the results “astonishing”:
“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 diseases11 …
There are initial indications that microplastics can damage the gastrointestinal tract12 by promoting inflammatory reactions or absorbing harmful substances13 …
While the highest plastic concentrations in animal studies have been found in the gut, the smallest microplastic particles are capable of entering the blood stream, 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 health14 …
I believe that trying to reduce plastic usage and plastic-packed food might be beneficial for nature and for us. Certainly, plastic is a very useful material and has a lot of clever applications. But maybe we should try to rethink about the necessity of abundant plastic use, and search for and support ecological and sustainable alternatives.15“
World’s Oceans Will Soon Contain More Plastic Than Fish
Indeed, the World Economic Forum estimates that by 2050, the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish,16 thanks to the addition of 8 million metric tons of plastic each and every year — a figure expected to increase 10-fold17 over the next decade alone unless decisive action is taken. Already, in some ocean waters plastic exceeds plankton by a factor of 6-to-1.18
To avert such a travesty, the World Economic Forum recommends focusing on three key strategies, all of which hinge on rethinking how plastics are made in the first place, i.e., switching to renewable sources rather than using crude oil to produce plastic:19
Improving the design of plastic packaging and other plastic products
Devising “new and creative delivery models based on reusable packaging”
Making recycling pay off — Plastic can, and should, be recycled, but a 2017 analysis20 reveals a staggering 91 percent aren’t
Disturbingly, plastic pollution is also accumulating on farmland. According to research21 published in Science of the Total Environment, the annual release of plastics to land may actually be four to 23 times greater than that released to oceans! The use of sewage sludge (biosolids) as fertilizer is one major source of all this plastic pollution.
When factoring in the range of sludge application rates, and assuming data from certain other countries with similar plastics usage are comparable, the total annual input of microplastics to European and North American farmlands is thought to be 63,000 to 430,000, and 44,000 to 300,000 tons respectively.
Are Microplastics Contributing to Bowel Diseases and Cancer?
Dr. Herbert Tilg, president of the Austrian Society of Gastroenterology and chair of the United European gastroenterology scientific committee (who did not take part in the study), worries that microplastics may be a factor contributing to rising rates of inflammatory bowel syndrome and colon cancer. He told New Hampshire Public Radio:22
“Colon cancer is increasing in young people, and we think that either dietary or environmental components are a factor. Now that we know we can detect microplastics in humans, we can develop larger studies, in both healthy and diseased patients, to find out if they are a contributing factor.”
Microplastics Linked to Altered Microbiota, Impaired Metabolism and Liver Toxicity
As noted by Schwabl, recent research suggests microplastic may indeed have an adverse effect on gut microbiota. The study,23 published in The Science of the Total Environment, found that polystyrene microplastics affected the gut barrier, microbiota and metabolism of mice. As reported by the authors:
“In this study, we exposed male mice to 5 micrometers pristine and fluorescent polystyrene microplastics (MP) for six weeks. The results showed that the polystyrene MP was observed in the guts of mice and could reduce the intestinal mucus secretion and cause damage the intestinal barrier function …
At the phylum level, the content of Actinobacteria decreased significantly in the polystyrene MP-treated group … [T]he diversity of gut microbiota was altered after polystyrene MP exposure. At the genus level, a total of 15 types of bacteria changed significantly after exposure to polystyrene MP.
Furthermore, the predicted KEGG (Kyoto Encyclopedia of Genes and Genomes) metabolic pathway differences indicated that the main metabolic pathways of the functional genes in the microbial community were significantly influenced by the polystyrene MP.
In addition, indexes of amino acid metabolism and bile acid metabolism in the serum were analyzed after polystyrene MP exposure. These results indicated that polystyrene MP caused metabolic disorders. In conclusion, the polystyrene MP induced gut microbiota dysbiosis, intestinal barrier dysfunction and metabolic disorders in mice …”
Another study24 published in 2016 found polystyrene microplastics accumulated in zebrafish and stressed the liver. After just seven days of exposure, particles measuring 5 micrometers had accumulated in the gills, liver and gut. Particles measuring 20 micrometers in diameter accumulated the gills and gut only.
Histopathological analysis revealed the particles caused inflammation and the accumulation of lipids in the liver, and “significantly increased activities of superoxide dismutase and catalase, indicating that oxidative stress was induced.” Metabolomic analysis also found the microplastics “induced alterations of metabolic profiles in fish liver and disturbed the lipid and energy metabolism.”
Earlier research25 has also proven that microplastics are taken into cells and cause significant effects on the tissue of the blue mussel under laboratory conditions.
Bottled Water Nearly Universally Contaminated With Microplastics
As mentioned earlier, recent tests26 reveal drinking water is now nearly universally contaminated with microplastics, whether you’re getting it from your tap or from bottled water. Just 17 of 259 bottles of water tested were found to be free of microplastic particles, and none of the 11 brands tested consistently free of plastic contaminants.
On average, the bottled water tested contained 325 pieces of microplastic per liter. The worst offender was Nestlé Pure Life, the most contaminated sample of which contained 10,390 particles per liter, while the least contaminated brand, San Pellegrino, contained a high-end density of 74 particles per liter. Here’s a summary breakdown of the most and least contaminated brands:27
Most contaminated brands
Least contaminated brands
Nestlé Pure Life
As noted by Orb Media, which commissioned the testing:28
“[F]indings suggest that a person who drinks a liter of bottled water a day might be consuming tens of thousands of microplastic particles each year … For microplastic debris around 100 microns in size … bottled water samples contained nearly twice as many pieces of microplastics per liter (10.4) than the tap water samples (4.45) …
According to existing scientific research, the plastic particles you consume in food or drinks might interact with your body in a number of different ways … Some particles might lodge in the intestinal wall. Others might be taken up by intestinal tissue to travel through the body’s lymphatic system …
Smaller debris, in the range of 20 microns (0.02 mm) has been shown to enter the bloodstream before it lodges in the kidneys and liver … Ninety percent of the plastic particles we found … were … small enough … for some to cross the gut into your body.”
In response to these findings, the World Health Organization has promised to launch a safety review to assess the potential short- and long-term health risks of consuming microplastic in water.29
How You Can Be Part of the Solution
Our cultural affection for all things disposable has left a trail of destruction. Now, how can you be part of the solution? In short, by becoming a more conscious consumer. Really give some thought to the manufacturing of the products you buy, how they may affect you during use, and what will happen to them once you dispose of them.
Few of us are capable of living a zero-waste lifestyle at this point in time, but every single one of us can take small but definitive steps toward the goal of reducing plastic trash in all of its forms. Here are a few suggestions to consider:
Avoid bottled water — Instead, invest in a good water filtration system for your home and fill your own reusable bottles with filtered tap water. Previous testing has revealed most bottled water is nothing but tap water anyway, which may or may not have undergone additional filtration. With over 267 toxins found in public tap water, it’s worth the investment to install a high-quality filter and bring your own water wherever you go.
Reduce your use of all things plastic — Purchase products that are not made from or packaged in plastic. While the items involved are near-endless, here are a few ideas:
Use reusable shopping bags for groceries
Bring your own mug when indulging in a coffee drink, and skip the lid and the straw
Store foods in glass containers or mason jars as opposed to plastic containers or bags
Take your own leftover container to restaurants
Request no plastic wrap on dry cleaning
Avoid microfiber clothing such as fleece, and/or wash them as infrequently as possible — Stretchy fabrics and fleece items shed copious amounts of microscopic plastic fibers each time they’re washed. Due to their tiny size, these microfibers30 flow straight through the wastewater treatment plant without being caught.
Up to 1.7 million tons of microfibers enter the ocean each and every year,31 and testing shows synthetic microfibers make up 85 percent of shoreline debris worldwide.32 Once in the water column, this plastic microdebris blocks sunlight required for plankton and algae to thrive, and the ramifications of this reverberates throughout the entire food chain.
Not only do the actual fibers pose a health hazard to the sea life that consume them, since they bioaccumulate, these fibers also act like sponges, soaking up and concentrating toxins like PCBs, pesticides and oil, making the animal — which could end up on your plate — even more toxic than it normally would be.
A far “cleaner” option all-around is 100 percent organic clothing — cotton, hemp, silk, wool or bamboo fabrics dyed with natural, nontoxic dyes.The Bluesign System Certification33 tells you the item has been manufactured with a minimal amount of hazardous chemicals, or none.
Wash synthetic clothing as irregularly as possible using a mild detergent. Line dry instead of putting them in the dryer, as the heat and agitation will break down fibers. Handwashing or using the gentle cycle with cold water will also minimize the shedding of fibers, as will using a front loading washing machine.
You can also install a microfiber filter on your washing machine, but the fibers will still end up in the environment since they’ll end up in trash destined for a landfill.
Recycle what you can — Take care to recycle and repurpose products whenever possible, and/or participate in “plastic drives” for local schools, where cash is paid by the pound.
Remember recyclables must never be placed in a plastic bag, as recycling facilities will simply send bagged items to a landfill.34 So, to ensure your recyclables actually get recycled, make sure you place the items loose in your recycle bin.
For more do’s and don’ts of recycling, see “Surprising Recycling Mistakes Most People Make.” You can also check out this Lifehacker article for more information about what you can and cannot recycle in general, over and beyond plastic.35