Pioneering microplastics project looks at impact on human health
Published on: 22 Oct 2023
In this week’s #TechnicalTuesday, Sanyukta Pallavi discusses recent EU legislation restricting the sale of products containing microplastics.
The use of microplastics and their subsequent emissions or discharge to the environment have become a global concern due to the hazards they pose to both human and ecosystem health. Apart from their innate toxicity, they also act as sources and sinks for many environmental toxicants.
Tiny, durable pellets of plastic are melted down and reformed into everyday products, from office chairs to water bottles. Over time, these moulded plastics break down into microplastic particles. These tiny plastic particles, less than 5mm in diameter, have been found almost everywhere including soil, air, surface water, drinking water, food, biota, human blood, human lungs, and, recently even in the human placenta.
Microplastic particles don't biodegrade. They are difficult (often impossible!) to remove. They remain for centuries, posing a threat to wildlife and ultimately making their way into the food chain and the human body.
The European Commission (EC) under the EU chemical legislation on the registration, evaluation, authorisation, and restriction of chemicals (REACH) have taken a ground-breaking step towards tackling microplastic pollution by adopting measures to restrict the sale of primary microplastics and the products containing them. These are largely microplastics intentionally added to products; they are found in a broad range of products, from cosmetics, glitter, and fabric softeners to artificial sport surfaces, fertilisers, and medical devices.
The prohibition of the sale of some of these microplastics by the EC (such as loose glitter, and microbeads in cosmetics), took effect on the 17th of October 2023. According to the European Chemicals Agency, the wholesale ban of other microplastics will come into force later on, to allow affected stakeholders sufficient time to develop their products and find alternative materials.
WRc shares the EC’s concerns, having recently initiated a knowledge transfer partnership with colleagues at Queen Mary University of London. Our team is keen to understand in more detail the toxicity of microplastics which end up in our food and drink. The two year research project aims to develop a microplastic analysis and human health risk assessment, which could help to define the specific short- and long-term risks to our health from microplastic particles.
Of course, a ban on microplastics is a positive step. It might seem obvious to say that its success depends on its scope, enforcement, and the availability of alternatives – the world will be watching to see the reality of this enormous new ban play out. To address plastic pollution comprehensively, we should also focus on reducing overall plastic use, improving recycling, promoting innovation in sustainable materials, enacting policies, and increasing public awareness and education. There is undoubtedly still a long way to go.
As part of the EU’s ambitious aims to cut pollution from microplastic particles by 74% within the next ten years, it is believed this ban will help prevent the emissions of about half a million tonnes of intentionally made microplastics into the environment. If the EU’s ten-year aims succeed, it could mean 7% less plastic pollution in Europe overall.
Whilst the EU stems the flow of new microplastic into the environment, specialist teams like ours continue to grapple with the permanent effects of existing microplastic pollution – making new research efforts more important than ever.
Sanyukta is a toxicologist with WRc's National Centre for Environmental Toxicology (NCET). NCET provide an independent advisory service to UKWIR members and sponsors on the health impact of chemicals in drinking water, wastewater, and the environment. Sanyukta has worked as a toxicologist for three years and has assisted the Global product safety team and toxicologists on consumer product safety projects. Her specialism is in cosmetic toxicology and human health toxicology.