Microplastics found in bottled water may worsen IBD symptoms, according to a new study. Photo by congerdesign/Pixabay
Dec. 22 (UPI) -- People with inflammatory bowel disease have more microplastics in their feces than otherwise healthy adults, a study published Wednesday by the journal Environmental Science and Technology found.
It is possible that tiny pieces of plastic measuring less than one-quarter of an inch in length could be related to the onset of the disease and its symptoms, the researchers said.
Feces collected from study participants with inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, contained about 1.5-times more microplastics than those taken from healthy adults, and people with more severe IBD symptoms tended to have higher levels of fecal microplastics, the data showed.
Although the microplastics had similar shapes -- primarily sheets and fibers -- in the two groups, the IBD feces contained more microscopic particles, according to the researchers.
The two most common types of plastic in both groups were polyethylene terephthalate, which is used in bottles and food containers, and polyamide, which is found in food packaging and textiles, they said.
"We conclude that the plastic packaging of drinking water and food and dust exposure are important sources of human exposure to microplastics," the researchers, from Nanjing University in China, wrote.
"The positive correlation between fecal microplastics and IBD status suggests that microplastic exposure may be related to the disease process or that IBD exacerbates the retention of microplastics," they said.
About 1.5% of adults in the United States, or 3 million people, have been diagnosed with IBD, which includes Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
These diseases are caused by inflammation of the digestive tract, and their symptoms can be triggered or made worse by diet and environmental factors, the agency said.
Microplastics, which are found in bottled water, food and the air, research suggests, can cause intestinal inflammation, gut microbiome disturbances and other problems, the Chinese researchers said.
For this study, they compared levels of microplastics in feces collected from 50 healthy participants and 52 others with different severities of IBD, with all of those enrolled from China.
Feces collected from participants with IBD contained 42 microplastic "items" per quarter-ounce, compared with 28 items per quarter-ounce for healthy participants, the data showed.
From all samples, there were 15 microplastics identified, with polyethylene terephthalate, found in up to 34% of samples, and polyamide, found in up to 12%, the most common, the researchers said.
Based on responses to a questionnaire administered to all participants, people in both groups who drank bottled water, ate takeout food and were often exposed to dust had more microplastics in their feces than those who did not engage in these activities, according to the researchers.
The findings suggest that people with IBD may be exposed to more microplastics in their gastrointestinal tract, they said.
However, it is unclear whether this exposure could cause or contribute to IBD, or whether people with IBD accumulate more fecal microplastics as a result of their disease, the researchers said.
This "deserves further studies," the researchers said.
"Our results also highlight that fecal microplastics are useful for assessing human microplastic exposure and potential health risks," they said.