The ‘microplastics in human poop’ study is pretty much BS

Ah, yes. The latest viral ‘science’ research whose results are ‘damning’ to society as a whole. Right?

I mean, right?

Who are we to question what the science gods tell us is true? And who are we to say that there is bad science reporting happening? We’re just normal people who click a link on the Facebooks or on the Tweeters, so how can we judge the accuracy of a scary-looking headline?

After all, when you read the headline Microplastics found in human stools for the first time by The Guardian, how could you *not* be scared of anything made of plastic?!?!

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Goodbye plastic storage containers, goodbye water bottles, goodbye plastic cups that you use on a daily basis in your home because the plastic cups are much larger than the nice glassware that you have and I don’t care to get up from my couch to refill my glass. This is America, after all. There is sportsball on or I’m chatting with my BFF or I’ve fallen into an existential crisis on my couch and I am not going to get up to fill my 12 ounce glass when I have a 32 ounce plastic cup at my disposal.

… Ahem.

So, yeah. There’s a study that:

[E]xamined eight participants from Europe, Japan and Russia. All of their stool samples were found to contain microplastic particles.

Up to nine different plastics were found out of 10 varieties tested for, in particles of sizes ranging from 50 to 500 micrometres. Polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate were the plastics most commonly found.

On average, 20 particles of microplastic were found in each 10g of excreta. Microplastics are defined as particles of less than 5mm, with some created for use in products such as cosmetics but also by the breaking down of larger pieces of plastic, often in the sea.

Well, hot damn. I guess we’re all screwed!

But wait a second… Hold on. That said *eight* participants were involved, right?


The population of Earth right now is 7.53 billion people. That means this sample size represents 0.000000001% of the population of Earth. Anyone who took statistics in college (and paid attention at least half the time) knows that a sample size of eight for a known population of 7.5 billion isn’t really relevant (you can read more here if you slept through your statistics class or want a refresher).

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Suffice it to say that, at this point, the results of this study mean little to nothing. And I’m going to lean more on the side of nothing at this point.

And for the sake of fairness, let me be clear: I am not attacking the authors of the study here. From what I’ve seen and read, they’ve done nothing wrong.

Alas, The Guardian reported:

Based on this study, the authors estimated that “more than 50% of the world population might have microplastics in their stools”, though they stressed the need for larger-scale studies to confirm this.

Well, damn. I guess all that’s left is for us to die now. RIP, fam.

Or not.

What blows me away about this whole thing is the fact that this is just a preliminary study.

Also, what blows me away is the fact that after I decided to fact-check this study, I had a hell of a time finding the primary source. I listed them below in order I saw them. I first saw it in The Guardian, then searched to try to find the primary source article about it, and was bewildered that nobody linked to it. Nevertheless, these are the (reputable) search results I happened to come upon, as I saw them, as of time of this writing:

The Guardian – no link to the actual study provided

National Geographic – no link to the actual study provided

CBS News – looked like they linked to the relevant study but instead linked to another fear mongering story about microplastics

TIME – Actually linked to The Guardian initially, but to their credit, eventually linked to a press release

Big Think – linked to the author of the study’s Research Gate page, and refers to a New York Times article about it, but doesn’t actually link to the primary source

However, even the goddamn New York Times piece about the study doesn’t actually link to the primary source

And maybe I’m missing something obvious.

I’m not blaming the authors of the study here at all. They’re doing science and by everything I’ve read, they’re doing good science.

This is how science works. You start with a small sample size to establish proof of concept, then you scale it up once you’ve established that there’s a need to do so. And that’s all that has been established here: a need for further research. But that’s not what gets you to click on articles written by The Guardian or National Geographic or TIME. They need to scare you into clicking so they get paid.

Yes, it would be bad news if we learned that microplastics were present in our poop. And it very well might be true that they are. But it’s also true that humans are living longer now than ever before.

The point

The study had a sample size of 8. Let me repeat that.

The study had a sample size of 8.

That means literally nothing to you. 

And don’t get me wrong – this isn’t the fault of the authors of the study. From what I can tell, they’ve done nothing wrong except for try to do science and have news outlets sensationalize their findings.

I’m not a scientist, but I understand this is how science works. You do a small study to establish a need for a further study, which establishes a need for more research from others, and so on until you’ve repeatedly shown the original hypothesis enough to establish that it’s not wrong.

Another infamous small sample size study found that vaccines cause autism. The study was repeatedly proven to be bullshit, but that didn’t stop thousands of people from pretending it was legitimate. Another study found that red wine prevents cancer, despite the fact that a study of 195 countries and territories found that no amount of alcohol consumption is safe.

So what do we do?

For one, don’t freak out over sensationalized headlines. There are plenty of other actual threats to be afraid of. Instead, before blindly sharing an article that has a headline that seems scary, read the article. And when you read the article, look for an actual reference to the primary source, and read the primary source to be sure that it actually says what the article is saying it says. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t.

And sometimes, as is the case here, it says that there were only eight people involved, across different continents. Which is… not very compelling, other than to support the notion that more research is needed.

So take a deep breath and relax. The sky is not falling (yet).

Written by Dan Broadbent

Science Enthusiast. Atheist. Lover of cats.

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