future view

Microplastics: what do we know about the health risks?

21 April 2020 • 3 min reading time

Humans love plastic. So far, we’ve produced some 8.3 billion tonnes of this artificial material in total, with about 5 billion tonnes having ended up in landfills or in the environment. How many plastic particles are now floating in the air? Both the answer to that question and how harmful those particles are to public health are unknown. We still have much to discover about microplastics.

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Our very distant ancestors already burnt fires. And before man learnt how to make fire, volcanoes and bolts of lightning set parts of the earth ablaze. Naturally, this also created soot and particulate matter. Particulates that the modern scientific world agrees are harmful for public health.

Microplastics in Antarctica

Since plastic products became massively popular, from 1950 onwards, increasingly more artificial particles have been floating in the atmosphere. These microplastics come from synthetic clothing, car tyres and other sources. And these particles are found all over the world, even in remote areas like Antarctica. Problematically, many of these particles are invisible to the naked eye and vary enormously in shape, size and composition.

“We do not know enough about the possible health risks of nano- or microplastics yet”

World Health Organization does not have the answers either

“It makes quite a difference whether you are dealing with micro- or nanometres”, explains Ingeborg Kooter, senior scientist of Environmental Modelling, Sensing & Analysis at TNO, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research. “For example, published studies with other nanomaterials show that 1% penetrates the intestinal wall, possibly ending up in the bloodstream. It is not clear whether both micro- and nanoplastics enter the bloodstream. We do not know enough about the possible health risks of nano- or microplastics yet. The WHO is still in the dark in that area too and cannot confirm whether there is a problem. This means more research is needed.”

Health effects of micro- and nanoplastics

How much are humans exposed to microplastics? How dangerous is that? And are there perhaps ways to prevent microplastics from originating at all? These are the questions TNO is trying to answer in order to determine the possible risks and simultaneously work on solutions. “And not only us”, Kooter emphasises. “This topic has been high on the agenda in recent years, and several parties in the Netherlands are now conducting research on microplastics. Last year, for example, the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMw) initiated fifteen research projects, all focusing on the effects of micro- and nanoplastics on our health. Besides TNO, UMC Utrecht, VU Amsterdam, the University of Groningen and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) are among the other institutes involved.”

“We’re investigating the effect of exposure to weathered microplastics on lung cells”

Existing insights

“I’m leading research into the effect that exposure to weathered microplastics has on lung cells”, Kooter continues. “This is another aspect that researchers have hardly investigated so far. Meanwhile, there is a lot of information available on the effect of other particles floating in the air, such as particulate matter and asbestos fibres. And we’re fully using that now, along with research into chemical components that may be in plastic products. We also have in-depth knowledge about the properties of additives, such as fire retardants and plasticisers. A lot is known about hydrophobic substances absorbed by plastics during use. And we are investigating what kind of substances can hitch a ride on plastic: a ‘trojan horse’, as we call it. In this way, we can build on existing insights and don’t have to reinvent the wheel”, she says.

Plastic as a ‘trojan horse’

The potential health problem of microplastics is not the only challenge. We simultaneously need action to prevent many more of these artificial particles from being added. With the rapid growth in the world population, for example, there is increasing demand for synthetic clothing. “We are now looking for possible solutions together with the textile industry and washing machine and detergent manufacturers. After all, this is a challenge you can tackle only with the entire supply chain. And this obviously also applies to other industries that make products which emit microplastics, such as the tyre industry. I like seeing more and more companies taking their responsibility in this area.”

“We're exposed to different types, sizes and shapes of plastic particles”

Top priority: measure!

“As stated, we’re exposed to different kinds of plastic particles. This diversity of types, sizes and shapes also makes the subject very complex. And because we cannot yet measure and detect very small microplastics – the nanoplastics – we don’t even know precisely what we’re talking about. Developing and standardising methods and experiments is therefore a top priority. Only then can we compare the results of different studies. And only then can we conclude whether there is a genuine health risk and create appropriate solutions.”

More information?

If you would like to know more about TNO's research into nano- and microplastics, contact Ingeborg Kooter.

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