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WHO wants more research into the health effects of microplastics

Amsterdam, 22 August 2019 – The World Health Organization (WHO) has released for the first time a report on the potential danger of microplastics in tap water and bottled water. The UN organization’s current assessment is that plastic particles in drinking water do not seem to be a problem, but because hardly any research has yet been done into the effects of microplastics on the human body, they are calling for more research. And WHO will have its way: on 3 October of this year, the Plastic Soup Foundation and ZonMw, in collaboration with the Plastic Health Coalition, will make available the first results into the health effects of microplastics on the human body.

Limited risk from drinking water 

The WHO report Microplastics in drinking-water looks at one way that microplastics can get into the human body, namely through drinking tap water or bottled water. In countries such as ours, most microplastics are removed during the process of making drinking water. Possible risks from the remaining particles include physical damage to the body, and chemicals and pathogenic microorganisms that adhere to plastic. Given the low concentrations in treated drinking water, according to the report, the health risk is low relative to other causes of disease.

Ifs and buts

The report points out that more than two billion people do not have access to safe drinking water. These people may be exposed to much higher concentrations. Another problem is what happens to the microplastics that are removed during the production of drinking water. WHO states in the report that there is a lack of information about the toxicity of nanoparticles. These ultra-small particles are potentially dangerous because they can go anywhere in the body. The report states that hardly any research has yet been carried out into the effects of microplastics on the human body. This type of research therefore has high priority.

Research by ZonMw

On 3 October, during the Plastic Health Summit, the first interim results will be presented from fifteen Dutch scientific studies into the effects of eating, drinking and breathing microplastics on the human body. WHO will get what it wishes for. Today’s knowledge gap is tomorrow’s science.

Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation: ‘The WHO report has been compiled on the basis of the literature, but not on the basis of real research into the effects of microplastics on our bodies. We are showing the world for the first time on 3 October what the possible effects are. Only when we know more will we be able to conclude whether our health is in danger or not.’

Photo: Cover of the WHO report.


Read also: WHO roept op tot meer onderzoek naar de gezondheidseffecten van microplastics 

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Better recycling of synthetic mattresses is half-baked solution

Amsterdam, 21 August 2019 – In the Netherlands, 1.2 million mattresses per year are placed at the side of the road as large household waste. Two thirds of these, a few hundred million kilos, are burned. Nearly all those mattresses consist of synthetic materials. If by mid-2019 no meaningful steps have been taken by the sector to reduce this mountain of waste, the government will take legal measures in the form of a mandatory manufacturer responsibility. The majority of the sector opt for recycling. This, however, is a half-baked solution. The real solution is the plastic-free mattress. 

Recycling initiatives

Presently, about 15% of the mattresses are now disassembled and processed, the rest are burned. The mattress industry has the objective to increase the percentage of processed mattresses. Various recycling initiatives have already come into being. Auping and DSM-Niaga have developed a circular mattress. Elements of that mattress are easy to separate and can then be used in new mattresses. In collaboration with waste processor Renewi, IKEA has been investing in the recycling of mattresses. RetourMatras recycles mattresses and reuses more than 90% of the materials. Mattress Recycling Europe collects discarded mattresses in municipalities. These are first placed on collecting carts and are then brought to a processing line.

Harmful substances

Synthetic mattresses contain harmful substances that cannot be removed during the recycling process. Substances such as flame retardants and softening agents are held responsible for a range of diseases. For this reason, the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2018 pointed to the health risks of the circular economy. In the national plan for endocrine disruptors in a circular economy presented last year, the Dutch foundation Wemos pleaded for a clean circular economy. The urgent advice is to avoid harmful substances at the design stage. For synthetic mattresses, however, this solution is an illusion. For instance, flame retardants are added intentionally, as plastics are particularly flammable.

Implementation programme

The government wants the use of raw materials to be halved in 2030 to eventually realise a waste-free economy. One of the ‘icon projects’ in the framework of the Implementation Programme Circular Economy entails improved reuse and design of mattresses. This project focuses on the recycling of discarded mattresses (95% in 2025) and a more durable design, so that in 2025 75% of new mattresses are easier to disassemble to reuse the materials. But circular mattress design should take into account the harmful substances. And the project is silent on precisely that issue.

The true circular mattress has already been in existence for a long time

The cabinet strives to burn significantly fewer mattresses, to recycle a much larger proportion of discarded mattresses, and to more mattresses being designed circularly. However, circular design is not defined. It mainly indicates modular design, so that a discarded mattress can easily be disassembled for usable parts. However, the icon project does not mention the truly circular mattress at all. That mattress simply exists already, is plastic-free and therefore free from harmful substances. This circular mattress consists exclusively of perfectly recyclable organic materials.

Baby mattresses

Especially the demand for organic baby mattresses has increased in recent years. Babies and small children are extra vulnerable to the harmful substances in synthetic mattresses. They sleep a lot and lie with their face directly on the mattress. The artisan company Lavital produces mattresses for adults that consist entirely of natural raw materials, and now also makes mattresses for cots.

Lavital has become a business angel of the Plastic Soup Foundation (PSF). The company donates part of the proceeds of sold children’s mattresses to the PSF (fill in code ‘ PSF ‘ when ordering the baby mattress).

Maria Westerbos, Director of the Plastic Soup Foundation: ‘It is very important that companies like Lavital show that you do not have to sleep on plastic with harmful additives. Paricularly babies deserve to make a good start. We are super proud that Lavital has become one of our business angels. ‘


Also read – Plasticers in plastic slow down baby’s language development

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We eat, drink and breathe more than 100,000 microplastics per year

Amsterdam, 27 June 2019 – The fact that each day we eat, drink and breathe microplastics has been known for some time; but the number of microplastics involved was still unclear. Researchers at the University of Victoria in Canada have now investigated how many microplastics an average American citizen intakes. An estimate was also made for American children.

Estimates

Based on previously published data on microplastics in food & beverage and in the air, the researchers made estimates of the minimum intake. An adult male in America intakes the most plastic particles: about 121,000 microplastics per year. For women the figure is 98,000 particles. The largest sources of microplastics turned out to be bottled water, fish and shellfish. Bottled water contains no less than 94 particles of microplastics per litre, compared to 4 particles per litre in tap water. It is estimated that children ingest between 74,000 and 81,000 plastic particles annually.

Gross underestimation

However, the available data is far from complete. For example, there is no data available on the amount of microplastics in chicken, beef, cereals and vegetables. The food & beverage groups included in this study therefore represent only 15% of the calorie intake of the average American. For this reason, according to the researchers, the figures presented are probably a gross underestimation of the actual exposure. They recommend research into other food groups in order to obtain a more complete picture.

WWF campaign

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) recently started a new campaign: we would ingest five grams of microplastics per week, comparable to the weight of a credit card. These five grams are based on an intake via food & drink of about 2,000 particles per week, of which 90% is through bottled water. The Canadian study also found around 2,000 particles per week, but that includes the particles we breathe. The WWF did not consider airborne intake.

Knowledge gap has health consequences

However, it does not seem appropriate to emphasise the weight of the intake. It is suspected that the most harmful particles weigh the least. This is also emphasised by the Canadian researchers. The smaller, and therefore lighter, particles may be able to pass through the intestinal and lung barriers and spread through the rest of our bodies. However, it is not known to what extent these particles are ingested, as they are so small that they cannot be detected with the current measurement methods.

Plastic Soup Foundation is concerned that so little research has been done into the health effects of micro- and nanoplastics and wants to know if we become sick from them. The aim of the Plastic Health Coalition, a partnership between scientists and environmental organisations initiated by the Plastic Soup Foundation, is to answer this question.


Read also – Plastic in your body: emphasis on size rather than weight
Read also – Health Council: “Prevent health risks caused by micro and nanoplastics”

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Tyre wear and tear one of the most important sources of microplastics in the environment

Amsterdam, 18 June 2019 – Driving, especially accelerating and breaking, causes wear and tear of car tyres, which produces small plastic particles. These particles can become microplastics and end up in sewers, surface waters and air. In other words, car traffic contributes to particulate matter and environmental pollution. Recent research by the Dutch Open University, estimates that particulate matter of tyre wear and tear is responsible for 130,000 to 300,000 deaths worldwide. 

Researchers calculated this number by gathering data on car use and mileage from thirteen different countries: eight Western European countries, Australia, India, Brazil, China and the United States. This data represents about half of the world’s population and 60% of the vehicles worldwide. The researchers then calculated that the global average of emitted tyre dust per person equals an average of 0.8 kilograms per year. The average in the Netherlands is about half a kilogram of tyre particles per person per year.

Pathways into the environment

Particulate matter consists of 3% to 7% tyre dust. But these tyre dust particles are not only airborne; they also contribute to the plastic soup in rivers and oceans. An estimated 5% to 10% of the plastics found in the ocean can be attributed to tyre dust. This makes tyre dust, after discarded plastic waste, the second largest source of microplastics in the environment.

Next steps

There is currently no alternative material available for car tyres. However, the researchers suggest several mitigating policies. The wear and tear of tyres will decrease with the use of wear resistant tyres, open asphalt concrete for roads and self-driving cars. In addition, the researchers suggest an increased efficiency in capturing microplastics by waste water treatment plants should reduce the amount microplastics in rivers and oceans. 


Also read:

We eat drink and breathe more than 100000 microplastics per year

Tyre particles and microfibers from clothing are a major source of plastic soup

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Plastic in your body: emphasis on size rather than weight

Amsterdam, 13 June 2019 – It is well known that we drink, eat and breathe plastic particles. But how many are there and how harmful it is for our health? This week the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) published a study and comes up with new information. The main conclusion in the publication No plastic in nature: assessing plastic ingestion from nature to people is that we may ingest 5 grams of plastic per week, as much as the weight of a credit card. The researchers base their conclusions on existing studies and rightly express many reservations.

 New WWF campaign

The report, which calls on Governments to take drastic action to fight the plastic soup and also advocates that much more research needs to be done, is accompanied by a new campaign launched by the WWF. The campaign has the shocking weekly amount of 5 grams of plastic that a person ingests as its theme. This is compared to daily objects such as a pen, a credit card or a dice, to get the message across how much plastic you ingest. Although this campaign will reach a wide audience, some nuance is called for.

Emphasis on weight says little

The research was carried out by the University of Newcastle in Australia. For their calculation researchers estimated the weight of the plastic particles. They take as their starting point an estimated weekly ingestion of 2000 plastic particles, a total weight of 5 grams. We are assumed to ingest about 90% through drinking water, through tap water and in particular through bottles of water. A study that was published last year (and to which the researchers also refer), found microplastics in 93% of the 259 bottles of mineral water that were studied, an average of 325 particles per litre. However, the vast majority— 315 particles — are ultra-small particles. So small that their weight cannot be determined.  Earlier this week, also a Canadian study on Human Consumption or Microplastics was published. According to this research the annual ingestion is 50,000 particles. These too are ultra-small particles that weigh virtually nothing.

Emphasis should be on size

Precisely those ultra-small particles, called nanoplastics, are most relevant for human health. More accurately: the particles that are almost insignificant in weight, are probably the most harmful. These can penetrate cell membranes and make their way into the organs. Larger particles, of which the weight can be determined, are usually defecated. It must be noted that there are still no standard methods to assess the risks of micro- and nanoplastics in the body.

Plastic Health Coalition

To find out how dangerous micro- and nanoplastics really are, the Plastic Soup Foundation has initiated a partnership in which scientists and environmental organisations work together: The Plastic Health Coalition. Earlier this year, ZonMW, The Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development, started fifteen studies into the effects of micro-and nanoplastics in this framework. On 3 October 2019, during the Plastic Health Summit, the first results are to be presented.


Also read:

ZonMw starts pioneering research into the health risks associated with plastic

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It’s raining microplastics, everywhere and every day

Amsterdam, April 17, 2019 – Sometimes the wind brings sand from the Sahara to the Netherlands. The sky can turn orange from it and, with light rain, everything can be covered with a layer of reddish dust. Researchers have turned their attention to microplastics in the air. These also appear to be settling out of the air and able to travel long distances. As a result, they end up everywhere, even in remote natural areas.

New study

In the mountains of the French Pyrenees, far from civilization, it was investigated how many microplastics fall out of the air onto the ground every day. Samples were taken over a five-month period, and measured both dry and wet (carried by raindrops) deposition. On average 249 plastic pieces were found per square meter per day, 73 pieces of film and 44 fibers. Calculations showed that the wind could transport these microplastics easily over a distance of 95 kilometers, and presumably over much longer distances. The article appeared in Nature Geoscience.

Two previous investigations

While quite a lot of research is being done into microplastics that find their way elsewhere via water, our knowledge about microplastics in the air is still very limited. In 2016, microfibre fallout was measured for the first time. In Paris and in a suburb of Paris, the microfibers settling out of the air every day were recorded. Between two and 355 microfibers per square meter per day were counted. Last year, Chinese researchers found that the daily fallout in the Chinese city of Dongguan was between 175 and 313 microplastics per square meter. Most of the microplastics there were synthetic microfibers.


Read also – Microfibers Fallout

Read also – How damaging is breathing in microplastics?

 

 

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My plastic diary

Seven o’clock, and there’s an icy storm blowing outside. My warm fleece jumper is covered in cat’s hairs, so I give it a good shake. Plastic microfibers fly all over the place. They get in to my lungs, and for all I know they settle in to the lung tissue. With dirt and all, as the jumper was not too clean. I’m glad I don’t have asthma.

It’s time to get blown away in the park on my morning walk. There’s an empty plastic chips tray floating in the pond. I fish it out and throw it in the rubbish bin. Some viruses and bacteria feel very much at home on plastic, more so than in the wild. I bet they have now hitched a lift on the tiny scraps of plastic that have stayed behind on my fingertips.

A little later, I’m struggling through a complicated report. I can’t seem to concentrate. Is that lack of caffeine, or is my brain full of plastic as well? I wash that last thought away with a big sip of cappuccino.

My tummy begins to rumble. Biological multigrain crackers, cheese and humus on the menu: all hygienically packed in plastic. My lunch has been surreptitiously seasoned with tiny pieces of nanoplastic. They end up in my intestines and who knows, maybe they pass through my intestinal wall in to my blood and lymphatic system. That doesn’t seem healthy: but maybe I will be well-preserved…..

I have a productive afternoon, typing away on my plastic keys, using my mobile in its nice plastic protective cover, making notes with my plastic pen. And then it’s time to clear my head with a run.  My comfy synthetic sports clothes leave minute plastic particles on my skin, so small that they might be able to worm their way in to my cells. I make way for a brand-new mother with a pram. Did her baby already feed on plastic in the womb, via the placenta and the umbilical cord? He looks quite normal….

The running clothes go straight in to the washing machine and the dryer, so that they are nice and fresh for tomorrow.  As soon as I open the door of the dryer, another cloud of microfibers makes a beeline for my lungs.

Hubby is in the kitchen, stirring mussels and fish through the paella. They, of course, have been eating from the plastic soup in the ocean. The plastic has been accumulating in their fishy bodies, and will now move in to mine. When I go to bed later for a well-earned sleep, illegal micro- and nanoplastics may be pioneering their way through my body. If that is indeed the case, then I hope that my immune system will arrest them and throw them out, just as it would with other foreign bodies: although it’s not known whether that actually works with plastic.

Tomorrow, seven o’clock, a new plastic day begins. A new round of breathing, eating and drinking plastic. Fifteen researchers are going to investigate what that has been doing to my health. That’s both good and bad news. I’m feeling as fit as a fiddle, but for certainty’s sake I should maybe start a plastic diet…….

 

Renske Postma

 

Photo by Jeroen Gosse

 

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The dirty truth about cigarette filters

Blue smoke curls up from my terrace. After the last puff, a flesh-coloured filter is thrown carefully into the garden, disappearing between the roses and the rhododendrons. I’m shocked. I think it’s messy, cigarette filters in my garden, on the street and on the beach.  “Don’t worry, it will disappear” is the standard reply to my mild disgust. And that always silences me: if it’s going to disappear, am I not being too critical to make a point of it?

My shock deepens after reading the dirty truth about cigarette filters on the CNN website. The reality? There is cellulose acetate in cigarette filters, a kind of plastic that only disappears under extreme circumstances. That might be OK in a wastewater treatment plant: but in my garden or on the beach the filters are almost indestructible. There they will gradually disintegrate into continually smaller particles which, in the end, will be invisible to the naked eye. It looks as if the filter has disappeared: but the plastic is still there. It’s in the soil and in the water. And who knows: maybe it’s in my roses and in the frog-spawn as well….

There are a mind-blowing number of cigarette butts littering the world. It’s the number one plastic item that we throw away. Every year, 6 trillion cigarettes are sold: 90% have a plastic filter. That’s more than a million tons of plastic rubbish. Clean-ups on the Dutch tourist beaches have shown the same result: the cigarette filter is the most commonly-found plastic item. And yes: as I stroll along the loose sand on the beach, I often feel a filter between my toes.

Cigarette filters don’t contain only plastic, but also a cocktail of toxic substances: arsenic (rat poison!), lead, nicotine and pesticides. As the filter disintegrates, the chemicals seep into the soil or the water. A university in the US did a test with fishes: they let them swim around in water where cigarette filters had been floating for 24 hours (one filter per litre of water). After a coupe of days, half of the fish were dead.

Filters were invented to improve the health of smokers. They don’t, according to another survey. The chance of getting lung cancer actually increases as a result of the filter.

I wish that I could say that I was too critical with my disgust for cigarette filters. I would happily accept all those filters shot between my roses and rhododendrons – and those between my toes on the beach. But the truth is unfortunately much dirtier than I thought.

Luckily, the solution is easy: it’s there just waiting to be picked up. Ban the filter cigarette.

Everybody – and everything – wins.

Renske Postma

Photo by Jeroen Gosse

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ZonMw starts pioneering research into the health risks associated with plastic

Amsterdam, 7 March 2019– Every day we inhale and ingest microplastics through the air that we breathe and the food that we eat. Do these microplastics then find their way to our brains or into the amniotic fluid of our unborn children? Do the particles affect our intestinal bacteria and lung cells? Or affect our immunity system? Countless questions about the possible health risks of plastic have not yet been answered. But this may change this year.

ZonMw, the Dutch organisation for health research, made known today that it is subsidising fifteen short research projects into the most burning questions. In total, with additional contributions by the NWO, the Gieskes-Strijbis Fonds and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, it will make an amount of 1.6 million euros available for this purpose.

As the communications partner, the Plastic Soup Foundation will publish the results on its new Plastic Health Platform.

Maria signs collaboration agreementmst met ZonMW

Scientific research into potentially dangerous consequences of microplastics and nanoplastics on the level of the cells in organs is still in the starting blocks. Because ever more alarm bells are ringing about the health risks of plastic, this new scientific research is more urgent than ever. With the ZonMw research, the Netherlands is positioning itself as one of the worldwide leaders.

Frank Pierik, Programme Manager ZonMw says “We are happy that the first projects in the Microplastics & Health programme can start. There is still very little known. This series of short projects will shed light and pave the way for more structured research into the health effects of microplastics.”

Maria Westerbos, Director of the Plastic Soup Foundation, adds to this. “We are proud that we have reached this stage. While we do not know for certain, plastic, and in particular microplastics and nanoplastics, are very likely to pose a health risk. Over the last few years we have worked behind the scenes to create The Plastic Health Coalition to continually communicate and share the results of new research. We will make the findings of the ZonMw research known to the world and produce mini documentaries about them. These videos can eventually be viewed on our website and on the ZonMw’s website. Another part of The Plastic Health Coalition is the Plastic Test Lab. In addition to the ZonMw research, we will work with the Free University of Amsterdam to test if various products release microplastics and nanoplastics – just think about plastic teabags in hot water – and hormone disrupting additives such as plasticisers and flame retardants.”

Photo: Karl Taylor Photography


Also read: Important new report plastic health

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The plastic broth in my body…

Thanks to Dutch national hero Boyan Slat, we all know the truth these days: our oceans are full of plastic. Even in the Mariana Trench, a trough in the western Pacific Ocean, miniscule pieces of plastic still swirl around at a depth of almost seven miles. A long way away, was my initial reaction: but now it seems that our own North Sea is also a well-filled plastic soup and even the gentle River Maas carries raw plastic rubbish. Now I’m only waiting for the news that there’s plastic in the ground water under my feet. That will be the end of it, it can’t come any closer. I thought. I hoped.

Until somebody thrust a list under my nose. A list full of things that I use every day. Some of them made from plastic, others which I would never have dreamt contained plastic: tea bags, table salt, honey, beer…..

The Plastic Soup Foundation and the VU University Amsterdam will this year be researching what the effect is on our bodies. A question which had never occurred to me….

The test list includes the plastic kettle, and in my imagination I clearly remember the trusty, bubbling machine that brightened my kitchen for many years. Hundreds of pots of tea I made with that machine. My mind conjures up a memory of a convivial cloud of steam. The test will tell me whether or not I was swallowing tiny pieces of microplastic, hardening agent and flame retardant as I slurped my tea. Oops.

The test list contains more surprises. It’s probable that I am massaging poisonous plasticisers and nanoplastic particles in to my skin every day as I apply my super-soft day cream. Sunscreen, shower cream, shampoo, make-up: same story. I begin to feel a bit uncomfortable, and quickly pass over the question what the plasticizers that are apparently included in tampons may be doing to me…..

My house turns out to be full of plastics that the researchers want to investigate with regard to their effect on my health. Those handy bottles and containers in the kitchen. The sport clothes that make me feel so fit. The warm fleece blanket that I wrap myself in on the couch. My yoga mat for those quiet moments. The rug in front of the fire, the curtains, even the paint on the walls. Is a bit of all of those things now part of the inner me?

It’s hard to buy an apple any more that has not been made more attractive by the application of a shiny coating of plastic. To be safe, it will be tested for all kinds of undesirable substances: plasticisers and hardening agents, flame retardants, fluorides, micro- and nanoplastics. It’s known that these substances are in some way related to a lot of the typical ailments of our time, such as ADHD, dementia and Parkinson’s disease. I’m in two minds: do I really want to know?

In the end, it’s the inclusion of milk powder for babies on the list that really gets my attention. Even that contains tiny particles of plastic. So we are feeding on plastic, every day, starting from our earliest days. In that way, the soup is very close to home: it seems I may have my own plastic broth in my body.

I need to know more about that.

 

Translated from a Dutch-language column by Renske Postma