WHILE he was undergoing a check-up, marine biologist Dr Yusof Shuaib Ibrahim had a question for his doctor: “Can you observe plastic in the human gut?”
The latter, consultant gastroenterologist Dr Lee Yeong Yeh, said no, but he had also been wondering about this. The two soon started a research project to look into this.
(Photo: What will Malaysian researchers find when they finish looking at the effects of microplastics on the human gut? Credit: Lee Yeong Yeh & Yusof Shuaib Ibrahim; annotated by Macaranga)
Both men were on one of two lively plastics solutions discussion panels on the opening day of the International Congress for Conservation Biology 2019.
Yusof heads the Microplastics Research Interest Group (MRIG) at Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, a main local player in marine plastic research. Lee is a Professor of Medicine and Consultant of Gastroenterology at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Kelantan.
The researchers live on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, in communities who are among the highest consumers of seafood in the country. That also means that “we are among the highest consumers of plastic in Malaysia,” Lee pointed out.
Plastics in the food chain
That seafood in Setiu, Terengganu, contains microplastics has been confirmed by the MRIG. Their published research analysed plastic pieces smaller than 5mm in size, in wild and farmed seabass (Lates calcarifer) and bivalves (Scapharca cornea).
The group is looking at the presence of plastics all along the marine food chain, right from marine worms (Polychaete) to humans.
“We are consuming the equivalent of one credit card per week from various sources,” said Lee, pointing to new findings by WWF and the University of Newcastle Australia. “What is the effect of this? Does plastic remain in the colon? Does it cause a reaction?”
The doctor is particularly interested in a possible link to colon cancer. “Colon cancer is the fourth biggest killer in the world and the second largest cancer killer in Malaysia. And it’s going to be a major killer in the next few years”. The causes of colon cancer are “largely unknown”.
He is also keen to figure out if there is a connection between plastic in the gut and inflammatory bowel disease, an ailment that is on the rise in Asia.
Effect on humans?
“We know what plastic consumption can do to animals,” he said, rapidly listing symptoms ranging from leaky gut and increases in toxins to the translocating of bad bacteria into the blood.
While Lee’s research on the effects of plastic in the human gut is still on-going, he told Macaranga that “we have some interesting findings with significant health impacts”.
As such, he said that all segments of Malaysian society should make a strong call for research, awareness and plastic alternatives. “All of us should champion this.”
Yusof explained that the MRIG is actually conducting a larger microplastics programme that involves multiple disciplines and institutions.
“We are currently focusing on determining whether microplastics are present in marine organisms, plants, air, water, sediments and humans.
“More investigations are needed in the coming years so as to credibly address the real impacts of these micro-contaminants on the food web and path and fate in humans.”
It is important to establish a good baseline for microplastic levels in the environment, rather than merely one-off studies. To this end, Yusof called for financial support from the government.
More research needed
It is certainly true that more data is needed, said panel member Dr K. Nagulendran, Deputy Secretary General (Environment and Climate Change), Malaysian Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment & Climate Change.
“As far as I am aware, the only scientific paper on comprehensive plastic pollution mentioning Malaysia is by Jenna Jambeck.”
He was referring to a seminal 2015 report estimating how much land-based plastic waste was entering the ocean. The report ranked Malaysia eighth in the world as a polluter.
Nagu added that research funding was available through two vehicles. One was the Ministry’s Roadmap to Zero Single-Use Plastics 2018-2030. The other was the June Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in Asean Region.
“Plastic pollution is an apex issue when it comes to the environment. We need everyone to come on board to address it.”
Related report: Plastic Solutions: It’s Complicated
This is a part of our reporting on the International Congress for Conservation Biology, July 21-25, 2019, Kuala Lumpur.