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Microplastics and the unknown risks

Microplastics are caused by the use and disintegration of plastic products. While the use of plastics is still increasing, little is known about the risks of the minuscule particles to humans. TNO helps to develop policy by conducting research into this.

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Possibly thousands of skincare products sold around the world contain tiny plastic granules. These microplastics are called microbeads in the cosmetics industry. But we also find microbeads in other products such as a fleece sweater, plastic bottles or in a portion of mussels.

Microplastics in the air

At TNO we focus on airborne microplastics. Relatively little is known about the concentration of microplastics in the air and their effect on our health. That is why TNO researches airborne microplastics. In doing this, we make use of our expertise in the distribution of particulate matter. Since microplastics exhibit the same behaviour, we can reuse existing instruments. This could be a measurement campaign on exposure to microplastics in the air both indoors and outdoors, in which we measure the concentration differences at various places.

Microplastics and their effect on humans

Secondly, together with universities and the RIVM, we are investigating the effect of particles on humans. Do we really have a problem or does the plastic leave the body without giving any problems such that we may not need policy instruments? In order to answer these questions, we conduct research into the biological uptake and effects. What are the main sources and what are the effects of exposure to microplastics on human health, for example in the lungs and intestines?

Understanding the exposure, composition and effects on health allows us to take measures to reduce exposure to microplastics. In addition, we are working with the industry in other research programmes to develop new 'safe by design' plastic materials. Finally, we support policymakers in the development of legislation and regulations.

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Drs. ing. Fred Hartendorf

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