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Leading NUIG Expert on Microplastics Warns of Risks after Research Finds Potential Link with Inflammatory Bowel Disease

31st January 2022
NUI Galway scientist Dr Liam Morrison said the research confirmed that the ubiquity of microplastics is a “serious societal challenge”.
NUI Galway scientist Dr Liam Morrison said the research confirmed that the ubiquity of microplastics is a “serious societal challenge”.

A leading Irish expert on microplastics has warned that the negative health effects may be more widespread, following publication of research linking microplastics with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

NUI Galway scientist Dr Liam Morrison said the research confirmed that the ubiquity of microplastics is a “serious societal challenge”.

The research paper published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology has found that people suffering from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) have more microplastics in their faeces than those without the condition.

The scientists also found microplastics were more prevalent among participants in the study who drank more bottled water or ate more takeaway food.

IBD can cause persistent diarrhoea, abdominal pain, weight loss, and the chronic digestive disease is estimated to affect some five million people worldwide.

"Microplastics were more prevalent among participants who drank more bottled water or ate more takeaway food"

The study by scientists at Nanjing Medical University in China did not prove conclusively that microplastics cause IBD, and cautioned that more research was needed.

However, the authors of the paper said their study provided “evidence indicating that a positive correlation exists between the concentration of faecal microplastics and the severity of IBD”.

Some 52 samples were taken from people with IBD, and another 50 were taken from people who are healthy.

The participants in the study were asked to provide information on the food and drinks they consumed, their working and living conditions, demographic situation, and the status of their IBD among those with the condition.

“We conclude that the plastic packaging of drinking water and food and dust exposure are important sources of human exposure to microplastics,” the researchers said.

Dr Liam Morrison said “the ubiquity of plastics in every component of our environment is a serious societal challenge on a transboundary scale for the 21st century”.

“We only have to look around us to see all the materials made from plastics and single-use plastics that play a central role in our lives, from the clothes we wear to the everyday items we use in our homes and in the workplace,” he said.

“ Millions of plastic items of varying sizes, from nano to macro are discharged into our environment daily,” Morrison said.

“Initial research mainly focused on impacts of plastic pollution in our oceans. Plastic waste is geographically widespread from the ocean depths to the mountain tops and in many species including our own,” he continued.

“ We are aware that humans are consuming microplastics from the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. We know that contaminants and toxins can accumulate on the surface of microplastics and the potential impacts of this on humans remains poorly understood,” he said.

The global pandemic brought “new dimensions”, due to the increased use of personal protective equipment (PPE), mostly made from plastics, to reduce the spread of infection, Morrison noted.

“On a global scale, 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are estimated to have been used every month during the Covid 19 pandemic. The disposable face mask market was estimated to have increased $800m in 2019 to $166bn in 2020,” Morrison said.

“There are of course huge societal benefits to plastics, but we have to really look at our usage of single-use plastics and waste management issues for a circular economy,” he said.

Published in Marine Science
Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Search and Rescue: True stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 (2022); Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004); and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010). She is also co-producer with Sarah Blake of the Doc on One "Miracle in Galway Bay" which recently won a Celtic Media Award

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Marine Science Perhaps it is the work of the Irish research vessel RV Celtic Explorer out in the Atlantic Ocean that best highlights the essential nature of marine research, development and sustainable management, through which Ireland is developing a strong and well-deserved reputation as an emerging centre of excellence. From Wavebob Ocean energy technology to aquaculture to weather buoys and oil exploration these pages document the work of Irish marine science and how Irish scientists have secured prominent roles in many European and international marine science bodies.


At A Glance – Ocean Facts

  • 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by the ocean
  • The ocean is responsible for the water cycle, which affects our weather
  • The ocean absorbs 30% of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by human activity
  • The real map of Ireland has a seabed territory ten times the size of its land area
  • The ocean is the support system of our planet.
  • Over half of the oxygen we breathe was produced in the ocean
  • The global market for seaweed is valued at approximately €5.4 billion
  • · Coral reefs are among the oldest ecosystems in the world — at 230 million years
  • 1.9 million people live within 5km of the coast in Ireland
  • Ocean waters hold nearly 20 million tons of gold. If we could mine all of the gold from the ocean, we would have enough to give every person on earth 9lbs of the precious metal!
  • Aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world – Ireland is ranked 7th largest aquaculture producer in the EU
  • The Atlantic Ocean is the second largest ocean in the world, covering 20% of the earth’s surface. Out of all the oceans, the Atlantic Ocean is the saltiest
  • The Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean in the world. It’s bigger than all the continents put together
  • Ireland is surrounded by some of the most productive fishing grounds in Europe, with Irish commercial fish landings worth around €200 million annually
  • 97% of the earth’s water is in the ocean
  • The ocean provides the greatest amount of the world’s protein consumed by humans
  • Plastic affects 700 species in the oceans from plankton to whales.
  • Only 10% of the oceans have been explored.
  • 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year, equal to dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute.
  • 12 humans have walked on the moon but only 3 humans have been to the deepest part of the ocean.

(Ref: Marine Institute)

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