There is no denying that, with millions of plastic bottles and bags being used on a daily basis, we are trashing our planet. It has been said that by the end of the year, we will have produced enough bubblewrap to encircle the Equator 10 times. If this didn’t scare you enough, the news gets worse. It takes an incredibly long time to degrade this enormous amount of plastic, and, meanwhile, trillions of tiny shards called microplastics are making their way into the ocean – and consequently finding their way into marine animals, tap water and even table salt. Where I am going with this? Well, these microplastics are making their way into your gut.
The popular study of gut health is at an all time high, and with this surge of research comes revelation after revelation. Did you know that most of our immune system is regulated by the gut, and that 90 percent of our serotonin is found in there? I can go on and on about the fascinating things our gut does, but we’ll save my geekiness for another day because today the focus is on microplastics.
A small pilot study was done in several countries – Finland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom and Austria – testing for microplastics in stool samples. Surprisingly, across this vast range of locations, every single sample tested positive for presence of microplastics. The test was rather small, because no prior study has ever been conducted on this issue and scientists were unsure of where their research would lead them. While there is no definitive evidence of the health implications of finding microplastics in the digestive tract, with these initial findings, broader studies have now been put into motion.
While the concentration of microplastic particles were rather low in the study, the real concern of course is if these particles are leaving traces of chemical contaminants in the gut as they pass through. If we then accumulate too many contaminants in the tissue or gut lining, certain health risks are far more likely to occur. It is still unknown if microplastics are a true health risk to humans, but it has been definitively found to cause damage in fish and other animals.
While factors may vary, the most likely culprit of human intake of microplastics is seafood. However, during the study I mentioned earlier, some subjects had not even eaten fish, which led researchers to look elsewhere. The range of different polymers found suggested a wide spectrum of contamination sources, and a possible hypothesis is that food is highly likely to be contaminated by plastic during the steps of food processing and packaging.
And while many people have become much more conscious of eating clean, it is unfortunate to also note that our tap water systems contain high level of microplastics. As we continue our effort to reduce single plastic use by opting for tap water, we are still ingesting the plastic bottles we are trying so hard to avoid. In the last year, 83 percent of tap water samples around the world tested positively for the presence of microplastics – the highest contamination rate, 94 percent, belonging to the United States. With so much contamination found, scientists and researchers are strongly urging for more research to be conducted on the implications to our health.
So what is a conscious human being to do? The production of plastic is somewhat inevitable, but proper disposal and lowering consumption can help to preserve this home we all share. And not being careless in the disposal of our plastic can be a big step toward plastic not making it into our water. Until more research is done for microplastics impact on our health, we can just do our part.
Picture from CNN