Human bodies are becoming polluted with plastic, scientists have confirmed for the first time.
Tiny pieces were found in samples from every participant in an experiment which tried to estimate how much plastic we eat and drink every day.
Until now most research has focused on the natural world, but the new study shows that humans are also consuming plastic, with some pieces potentially lodging in our bodies.
Researchers spoke last night of their surprise at finding so many particles in the human samples. They suggested sources could include the eating of fish or drinking of water from plastic bottles.
Campaigners said the scale of the plastic crisis meant it was ‘impossible’ for people to avoid eating, drinking and breathing in plastic – with potentially harmful effects. These include the risk of bacterial infections, introducing harmful chemicals to the body, irritating the gut lining, and affecting immune responses.
Lead researcher Dr Philipp Schwabl said: ‘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 diseases. The smallest microplastic particles are capable of entering the bloodstream and 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 health.’ Hundreds of pieces of microplastics were found in every stool sample taken from people who took part in the study by the Medical University of Vienna.
Researchers from the university and the Environment Agency Austria monitored participants from the UK, Finland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, and Austria. The results showed every sample tested positive for the presence of microplastics – with up to nine different types identified. The most common plastics were polypropylene and polyethylene-terephthalate (PET). Both are commonly found in food and drink packaging.
The research was a pilot study involving eight participants. Each one kept a food diary for a week before their samples were analysed in the laboratory.
The diaries showed all the participants had eaten food wrapped in plastic or drunk from plastic bottles. None of the participants was a vegetarian and six of them ate sea fish.
The microplastics found were between 50 and 500 micrometres in size. A human hair has a thickness of between 17 and 181 micrometres.
The Daily Mail is leading the calls to tackle the plastic pollution crisis, with campaigns that have stopped the use of tiny microplastic beads in cosmetics and resulted in the introduction of a plastic bag levy.
It is estimated that about 2 to 5% of all plastic produced ends up in the sea, where it is consumed by fish and other marine creatures. Significant amounts of microplastics have been detected in tuna, lobster, shrimp and mussels.
A Mail investigation this year found that tiny plastic particles have become ‘part of the air we breathe’.
A laboratory study found airborne particles on every sample of fish from eight major supermarkets in the UK after they had been left on open-air counters.
It had been thought the risk to health was largely limited to eating fish from oceans polluted with plastic, but the study proved that microplastics are also in the air.
The researchers behind the new study note: “It is highly likely that during various steps of food processing or as a result of packaging, food is being contaminated with plastics.” Synthetic fabrics are also a significant source of microplastics in the environment as fibres from our clothes end up in the sea from treated and untreated sewage being released into rivers.
Dr Schwabl said: “Plastics are pervasive in everyday life and humans are exposed to plastics in numerous ways. I did not expect that each sample would test positive. We do, however, need to be aware of the small sample size of our study.” He added: “On a global level plastic production and plastic pollution correlate very strongly. Therefore, it is likely that the amount of plastic contamination may rise further if mankind does not change the current situation.”
Friends of the Earth’s head of policy Mike Childs said: “This is further disturbing evidence of how pervasive plastics are in our environment.
“It now appears to be impossible for people to avoid ingesting or breathing in plastic pollution. While programmes like Blue Planet have vividly shown the devastating impact of plastic on wildlife, we don’t yet know what effect it has on human health.”
Louise Edge, Greenpeace UK’s senior oceans campaigner, added: “This is yet another shocking development that shows just how dramatically plastic is contaminating every aspect of our lives.