You couldn't even begin to imagine the amount of plastic that's dumped into our oceans every minute of every day. The number is truly astounding -- eight million metric tons annually! That's a lot of plastic!
Once all of this plastic hits the water a good bit of it will wash ashore. However, the plastic that doesn't make it to land will eventually be broken down into what's known as "microplastics," tiny bits of plastic that's often smaller than 5 millimeters wide.
These tiny pieces of microplastic will float around the ocean and eventually find new homes. Some especially dense pieces of microplastic will sink to lower depths in the ocean. Some will eventually attach themselves onto a gigantic mass of trash (around the size of a large glacier) that's floating around in the Pacific ocean.
Other pieces of microplastic will inevitably be eaten by the surrounding marine life which are in turn captured and eaten by land animals and humans. Once the marine life (fish for example) has made its way into our digestive tract that's when the inevitable happens -- microplastic finds its way intoour poop.
What's even more alarming is that a study performed on a small pool of international test subjects found that every single participant had plastic contained within their stool sample. These 8 participants, hailing from the countries of Poland, Japan, Finland, Italy, Austria, Russia, the Netherlands, and the UK, sent in their stool samples to the Environment Agency Austria for analysis.
The test results had nothing to hide -- the participant's stool tested for several types of plastics. This included polypropylene (found in bottle caps), polyethylene (found in plastic bags), polyvinyl chloride (the plastic found in PVC pipes), and many more plastic types.
What was most disturbing was the fact that 9 out of 10 of the plastics that the researchers tested for were detected in the stool samples. As the researchers ran their experiments, they found that every quarter pound of poop turned up 20 particles of microplastic.
The results of the study caused the researchers great alarm which prompted them to start asking questions -- How in the world did so much plastic find its way into the poop of their test subjects? How harmful was this plastic to their health?
While the results of the test were alarming the small number of participants makes it difficult to draw any conclusive results. Furthermore, the sheer number of ways someone could ingest microplastic adds yet another layer of complexity to the study making it that much harder to draw conclusive results.
Upon analysis of the participant's food logs, it was discovered that each of the test subjects had all consumed foods that were wrapped in plastic and drank from a variety of plastic bottles.
Furthermore, six of the participants consumed seafood at least one week before the actual study. Researchers were unsure where the plastic in the stool came from -- the plastic wrapped food, the seafood, or the plastic bottles.
Despite this, now that researchers are certain that microplastic exists in the stool of their test participants they're confident of one thing -- they now know how to detect microplastic within the human body. With that knowledge in mind, there have been moves to conduct an even more extensive test study with more participants. Still, there are more methods of measurement available for future case studies.
The method used in this particular study is known as the microscopy method, a common method used during microplastic analysis. While the microscopy method is popular, it can't detect microplastic smaller than 20 microns (around the size of a human skin cell).
Another method, known as Raman spectroscopy, could detect microplastics that measure only one micron wide. This measurement method can help to provide even more in-depth insights into future studies.
Finding microplastic in one's poop is certainly noteworthy, but no one can say for certain how harmful it can be to humans mainly because microplastic toxicity studies have never been conducted before.
With that being said, animals studies have revealed a wealth of data such as the fact that microparticles can infiltrate the bloodstream, perhaps the liver, and the lymphatic system. At the same time, the same microplastic also collects in the gut which can potentially disrupt hormone regulation and harm the intestines and organs.
In the end, the study has left researchers with more questions than they began with. However, one thing is clear -- microplastic has not only permeated the world's oceans, but it has also found its way into our bowels. Whether we're at medical risk remains to be seen.