Individuals affected by inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) have more microplastics in their feces than healthy controls, a new study has found.
Recent estimates indicate that people consume tens of thousands of microplastics — those that are less than 5 mm in length — from a variety of sources, ranging from bottled water to food to air, according to the study, published in Environmental Science & Technology.
While the health consequences of such consumption have long been unknown, researchers at Nanjing University in China have found that the development of IBD could be related to the ingestion of these fragments, a statement accompanying the study said.
IBD, which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, is characterized by chronic inflammation of the digestive tract and can be caused or exacerbated by dietary choices and by environmental factors, according to the study. Meanwhile, the incidence of IBD continues to rise around the world.
“For the first time, this study reveals that there is a significant difference in the concentration of [microplastics] in feces from IBD patients and healthy people,” the authors stated.
The researchers obtained fecal samples from 50 healthy people — 30 male and 20 female — and 52 people — 31 male and 21 female — with IBD from different geographic regions of China, ultimately finding that the samples from IBD patients contained about 1.5 times more microplastic pieces per gram than those from the healthy subjects. Individuals with more severe IBD symptoms also tended to have higher levels of fecal microplastics, according to the study.
While the microplastics in IBD patient and health participant samples were similar in shape — described in the study as “sheets” and “fibers” — the IBD feces had more small particles, the scientists found.
Through an accompanying questionnaire, the researchers confirmed that people in both groups who consumed bottled water, ate takeout food and were exposed to dust had higher levels of microplastics in their fecal samples. They acknowledged, however, that it remains unclear as to whether this exposure triggers IBD or whether individuals with IBD accumulate more fecal microplastics due to their illness.
“Although we identified positive correlations between fecal [microplastic] concentrations and IBD status, the underlying mechanism requires further study,” the authors stated.