Microplastics in the body

Study links microplastics in the human intestine to inflammatory bowel disease

Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod

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Published: 24 December 2021

This Article was Written by: Katie Hill - My Green Pod

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Microplastics — tiny pieces of plastic less than 5mm in length –– are everywhere, from our bottled water to our food to air.

According to recent estimates, people consume tens of thousands of these particles each year, with unknown health consequences.

Now, researchers reporting in ACS’ Environmental Science & Technology found that people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) have more microplastics in their faeces than healthy controls, suggesting that the fragments could be related to the disease process.

‘Microplastic contamination is everywhere, from the highest mountain to the deepest ocean to our own bodies. We are all exposed to this pollution, at rapidly increasing levels, and there is a trickle of studies suggesting that microplastics can damage human cells, cross the blood/brain barrier and now, correlate to inflammatory bowel disease, a problem which is also being detected at rapidly increasing levels.

‘Under these circumstances, the UK government’s continuing reluctance to investigate the health risks of microplastics seems recklessly complacent. If microplastics are a significant health risk, then we need to know that before we allow the plastic industry to double the size of the problem.’

WILL MCCALLUM
Head of Oceans for Greenpeace UK

IBD on the rise

The prevalence of IBD, which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, is rising globally.

Characterised by chronic inflammation of the digestive tract, IBD can be triggered or made worse by diet and environmental factors.

Microplastics can cause intestinal inflammation, gut microbiome disturbances and other problems in animal models, so Faming Zhang, Yan Zhang and their colleagues wondered if they could also contribute to IBD.

Microplastics from food, drinks and clothes

As a first step towards finding out, the researchers wanted to compare the levels of microplastics in faeces from healthy subjects and people with different severities of IBD.

The team obtained faecal samples from 50 healthy people and 52 people with IBD from different geographic regions of China.

Analysis of the samples showed that faeces from IBD patients contained about 1.5 times more microplastic particles per gram than those from healthy subjects.

The microplastics had similar shapes (mostly sheets and fibres) in the two groups, but the IBD faeces had more small (less than 50 μm) particles.

The two most common types of plastic in both groups were polyethylene terephthalate (PET; used in bottles and food containers) and polyamide (PA; found in food packaging and textiles).

Bottled water and takeaways

People with more severe IBD symptoms tended to have higher levels of faecal microplastics.

Through a questionnaire, the researchers found that people in both groups who drank bottled water, ate takeaway food and were often exposed to dust had more microplastics in their faeces.

These results suggest that people with IBD may be exposed to more microplastics in their gastrointestinal tract.

However, it’s still unclear whether this exposure could cause or contribute to IBD, or whether people with IBD accumulate more faecal microplastics as a result of their disease, the researchers say.

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