October 26, 2018
Before you throw away another plastic bottle, think about this; plastic does not biodegrade. Every piece of plastic trash that ends up in the environment, deteriorates into smaller and smaller bits until it ends up at the bottom of the food chain. Can you guess who's at the top of the food chain? That's right. You and me. The next time you throw a piece of plastic in the trash you might as well eat it.
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Every minute, a dumptruckful of plastic plops into the world's oceans. That's eight million metric tons every year. Once waterborne, whatever doesn't wash ashore eventually breaks down into itty bits. The tiniest pieces get ingested by marine life, including fish and shellfish, which are in turn ingested by other animals, like birds and humans.
All of this is a mess, from an ecological perspective. But it's that last bit-the microplasticine infiltration of food webs-that worries not just ecologists but gastroenterologists. If microplastics are invading the things we eat, it's possible that they're invading our stomachs and intestines, too. But while the matryoshka-nature of food chains certainly suggests that human guts harbor microplastics, nobody's really bothered to look in a systematic way.
Until now! Today at the United European Gastroenterology meeting in Vienna, researchers announced they have detected microplastics in stool samples from every single one of a group of international test subjects. "Plastics are pervasive in everyday life and humans are exposed to plastics in numerous ways," said Philipp Schwable, a gastroenterologist at the Medical University of Vienna, who led the study, via email. And yet, even he did not expect that every sample would test positive.
It's also tough to say how harmful the microplastics are to humans, because no studies on microplastic toxicity in humans have been performed. Animal studies have shown that microparticles can infiltrate an affected animal's bloodstream, lymphatic system, and perhaps their liver, all while collecting in their guts with potentially harmful consequences for their organs, intestines, and hormone regulation.