Microplastics may be linked to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a new study has found.
Higher quantities of the tiny particles, ingested through drinking bottled water and eating fish, were found in the stools of people living with the condition.
Analysis showed that stools from patients with IBD contained about 50 percent more microplastics per gram.
Scientists found 42 microplastic pieces per gram in dried samples from people with IBD and 28 pieces in those from healthy people.
It is estimated that at least 300,000 people in the UK have IBD, an umbrella term that includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Scientists from Nanjing Medical University in China, who conducted the study, said it is the first of its kind to demonstrate a link between microplastics and an illness.
Microplastics originate from degradation of larger objects such as bags, bottles, fishing nets, personal care products and tyres.
The results were based on samples from 102 people across China – 50 of whom had the condition, with the remainder being healthy.
The shapes – mostly sheets and fibres – were similar in both groups. But the IBD faeces had more smaller particles.
In total, 15 different types of plastic were found among the microplastics.
‘1.3 billion tonnes of plastic’
The two most common types of plastic were PET (polyethylene terephthalate) used in bottles and food containers and PA (polyamide) found in food packaging and textiles.
People with more severe IBD tended to have higher levels of faecal microplastics.
Through a questionnaire, the researchers found people in both groups who drank bottled water, ate takeaway food and were often exposed to dust had more microplastics in their stools.
Dr Farming Zhang said the findings, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, suggested exposure to the microplastics, measuring less than 5mm, could be linked to the development of IBD.
He said: “Human consumption is inevitable due to the ubiquity of microplastics in various foods and drinking water.
"The fragments could be related to the disease process. Characterised by chronic inflammation of the digestive tract, IBD can be triggered or made worse by diet and environmental factors.
"These results suggest 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."
“It is estimated that there will be 1.5 million IBD patients in China by 2025 which will cause a serious disease burden.”
A global model by Leeds University has found 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic is destined for the environment – both on land and in the ocean – by 2040.
‘Contamination is everywhere’
Greenpeace UK, in response to the finding, said the Government’s “reluctance” to investigate the health risks of microplastics seems “recklessly complacent”.
Will McCallum, Head of Oceans for Greenpeace UK, said: “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 irritable 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.”