Microplastics – tiny pieces of plastic less than 5mm in size – are everywhere from indoor dust to food to bottled water. It is therefore not surprising that scientists have detected these particles in the feces of people and pets. Now, in a small pilot study, researchers reporting in ACS ‘ Letters on environmental sciences and technologies discovered that infants have higher amounts of one type of microplastic in their stool than adults. The health effects, if any, are uncertain.
Little is known about the extent of human exposure to microplastics or their health effects. While it was once believed that microplastics were safe to pass through the gastrointestinal tract and out of the body, recent studies suggest that smaller pieces can cross cell membranes and enter the circulation. In cells and laboratory animals, exposure to microplastics can cause cell death, inflammation, and metabolic disturbances. Kurunthachalam Kannan of New York University School of Medicine and his colleagues wanted to assess human exposure to two common microplastics – polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polycarbonate (PC) – by measuring levels in the feces of infants and adults.
The researchers used mass spectrometry to determine the concentrations of PET and PC microplastics in six feces samples from infants and 10 adults collected in New York State, as well as three samples of meconium (the first stools of a newborn). All samples contained at least one type of microplastic. Although the average levels of fecal PC microplastics were similar between adults and infants, the stools of infants contained, on average, concentrations of PET more than 10 times higher than those of adults. Infants could be exposed to higher levels of microplastics due to their heavy use of products such as bottles, teething rings and toys, the researchers said. However, they note that larger studies are needed to corroborate these findings.
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