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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

Mopping up with the plastic-soup tap left open….

Recycling. A word that makes me happy. Like the swoosh-swoosh-swoosh of the skipping rope as pretty young girls in their light summer frocks jump up and down on a glorious sunny day. The effortless movement that seems able to go on for ever, Leonardo da Vinci’s perpetual motion machine. Recycling sounds like healthy, economical and sensible. Something which everybody would support and to which nobody could object.

If I think of recycling, I think of pumpkin peel, broccoli stumps and all the other vegetable scraps that are left over in my kitchen: I drop it in the recycling bin and later on I buy it back as compost to pamper my garden. I think of my cupboards, too small to offer sanctuary to everything which I wanted to save. It’s all languishing in the second-hand shop now, waiting to start a new life in a new collection tomorrow. Nothing but praise for recycling.

Initially, recycling plastic also sounded like music to my ears. It sounded to me like a happy solution for the devilish problem of the plastic that has been taking a continually stronger grasp on our world: the plastic bottles, bags, chairs – what isn’t made of plastic these days? – that ends up as litter on our streets and in our rivers, flowing to the sea where it – disintegrating to ever-smaller pieces – chokes the stomachs of unfortunate birds and fish. Or the plastic microfibers that float through the air and threaten our health. Recycling seemed a decisive step in the battle against that kind of misery.

Until I started looking at the figures.

The amount of newly-produced, un-recycled plastic in the world is growing at a tremendous rate. An additional 380 billion tons in 2018, within 10 years that means 530 billion tons of plastic per year. Exactly how much ends up as litter – in the fields, in the water or in the air – is not known, at least 16 billion kilos per year, maybe a lot more. Large multinational companies argue that all their plastic packaging will use recycled raw materials by 2025. That sounds impossible to achieve, but apart from that: it’s still plastic packaging. And a percentage of that will still end up in the ocean, the “lungs” of the word. Or in our own lungs.

Now, if I think of plastic recycling, I no longer think of girls having fun with their skipping rope, but of poor wretches mopping up the mess while the plastic soup continues to gush from the open tap. A PET bottle made of recycled plastic may use less petroleum to produce than a bottle made of new plastic – and that’s good – but we will not solve The Big Plastic Problem by migrating to recycled plastic.

The only real solution has the simplicity of a light summer frock: bring less plastic products to market. As a start: no more single-use plastics, like PET bottles and plastic bags. And the plastic that does still reach the shelves: collect it efficiently, for example with a deposit scheme.

Surrounded as we are by so many clever people in this world, surely we can start this movement without too much trouble?

Swoosh…….Swoosh……..Swoosh……..

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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

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Scientific research into health risks of microplastics: Does plastic make us sick?

    


PRESS RELEASE

Start of scientific research into the health risks of microplastics: Does plastic make us sick?

Nieuwspoort, 22 March 2019 – Today, ZonMw, the Dutch organisation for health research and healthcare innovation, will launch fifteen unique research projects into the effects of micro- and nanoplastics on our health. This is the first scientific program in the world on this subject. A total of 1.6 million euros is being invested in the research projects.

Professor Dick Vethaak of Deltares, involved in four of the fifteen research projects, explains: “Microplastics spread easily via water and wind, resulting in a worldwide problem; they are present everywhere in our environment like a kind of grey mist.
We are constantly exposed to small plastic particles via our food, drink or through breathing. What this means for our health, however, cannot yet be properly estimated. There are strong indications of possible health risks, but there are also many uncertainties and knowledge gaps.”

Vethaak continues: “I am therefore delighted with this initiative from ZonMw and the involvement of the Plastic Soup Foundation. This is an initial exploratory study in which experts from various disciplines and sectors will work together. In particular, the collaboration between environmental scientists and medical specialists will be strong and unique. The Netherlands is taking the lead worldwide. I therefore have high expectations!”

The projects, which run for one year, address important questions such as:

  • How can microplastics enter our bodies?
  • What role does size, shape and composition play in this?
  • Could plastic in the environment be a source of diseases and infections since certain bacteria seem to thrive on plastic?
  • Can our immune system cope with plastic, or are we more likely to suffer inflammation and infections because of it?
  • How deep does microplastic penetrate into our bodies? Does it affect our brains? Is it harmful to unborn children?

Dr. Heather Leslie of the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and involved in three of the projects, says: “If plastic particles can lead to chronic inflammation, that could mean the first step towards a whole series of chronic diseases. That is why we urgently need to investigate how many plastic particles from our consumer society penetrate the human body.”

The first interim results will be presented on 3 October, during a Plastic & Health conference in Amsterdam.

Just the beginning

ZonMw emphasises that the funding of these fifteen projects is only the beginning. One year is not long enough to obtain all the answers. Henk Smid, director of ZonMw, sees great potential in these studies and so also hopes that further long-term investigations will be possible. “The Netherlands has a leading position worldwide in scientific research into microplastics and this should be further expanded as quickly as possible.”

Plastic Health Coalition

Communication on the various pilot projects and possible (interim) results will be done by The Plastic Health Coalition – an initiative of the Plastic Soup Foundation. Working together in this coalition are various national and international environmental and research organisations which are concerned about or concerned with the effects of (micro) plastic on our health.

Plastic Test Lab

In addition to the 15 research projects, the first results of the Plastic Test Lab are also being presented today, a collaboration between the Plastic Soup Foundation and the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.

Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation: “We have had three cosmetics products tested for the presence of plastic particles and the results are alarming. The absolute disillusion is the anti-wrinkle day cream from Olaz. In one 50 ml jar the VU found no less than 1.5 million plastic particles. Every time I use this product, I therefore close the wrinkles on my face with 90,000 particles. In addition, HEMA lipstick No.06 is made of plastic, and so is the Essie glitter nail polish from L’Oréal.”

Westerbos continues: “Tests such as these fit seamlessly with the fifteen research projects of ZonMw. This gives us more insight into how microplastics can enter our body unimpeded and unintentionally.”

More information

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From plastic soup to plastic poop

Amsterdam, 1 November 2018 – The knowledge that microplastics are present in every aspect of our lives has almost become common knowledge. Microplastics have been discovered everywhere, in water, air and soil and in fish and seafood, honey, salt and beer. With the widespread presence of microplastics, it is not surprising that they are also present in human faeces.

On the 23rd of October, Austrian researchers presented their findings during a congress in Vienna. They discovered, on average, twenty pieces of plastic per ten grams of faeces and they found nine different types of plastic in total, in the stool samples. The faeces of the eight participants, all from different countries, were sampled. All stool samples contained microplastics. The most frequently discovered plastics were polypropene (PP) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET); plastics commonly used in packaging.

Pieces of microplastics, with a size between 50 and 500 micrometre, were excreted in the human faeces, but it is still unclear if even smaller pieces remain in the human body. The smallest pieces microplastics can cross the wall of the gastrointestinal tract, enter the blood stream or tissues and cause an inflammatory reaction. How exactly the plastics entered the digestive tract of the subjects was not part of the research. However, all the subjects had eaten food that had been packed in plastic. Furthermore, drinks containing microplastics could also be a possible source.

An interview with Jeroen Dagevos of the Plastic Soup Foundation is available on the site of Talk Radio. Maria Westerbos, director van de Plastic Soup Foundation: “For sometime, it has been suspected that plastics could be present in human faeces. But main issue has to be, what the effect of microplastics is on the human body. It is therefore extremely urgent that, firstly, the research in the health effects continues and, secondly, as a precaution the use of plastics is reduced.”


Also read: How damaging is breathing in microplastics

We eat, drink, and breathe plastic

NRC Handelsblad, one of the leading Dutch newspapers, published an opinion article on Saturday June 23rd 2018, written by Maria Westerbos (Director, Plastic Soup Foundation). Below you can read the translation of the original article.

Visible and invisible plastic particles penetrate our food chains. We’ve been believing in the fairy tale of recycling for too long, says Maria Westerbos.

The increase of plastic pollution is a threat to ecosystems both in water and on land. Everyone’s surely aware of this by now. But to what extent is plastic soup harmful to human beings as well? A question that’s not asked often enough. We know plastic litter fragments, and never decomposes. The concentration of microplastics in the environment and in the air is increasing exponentially. We breathe plastic, we eat plastic, we drink plastic, and we touch plastic all day long.

The Plastic Soup Foundation started a campaign earlier this month, on World Oceans Day, to inform everyone about the direct relationship between plastic and our health. Significantly less plastic truly is the only solution. Governments, corporations, and consumers; the entire world needs to produce less plastic, needs to go on a plastic diet.

Late 2016, the Health Council of the Netherlands published a so-called letter advice about the health risks of micro- and nanoplastics. The council had observed that we inhale small particles of plastic through the air, and consume them through seafood. Additionally, nanoplastics can pass through the intestine and placenta. Although the consequences are still unknown, it can’t be ruled out that this has a toxic effect on the immune system. The Health Council also expressed its worry about the hormone-disrupting effect of chemicals that are added to plastic, such as plasticizers and flame retardants. Furthermore, microplastics can spread pathogenic bacteria.

Health risks for humans can’t be ruled out, but the Health Council considered the uncertainties were as yet too large to be able to formulate specific recommendations to the Dutch government. The Council came no further than a weak call for more research. Unfortunately. Thankfully, the state secretary of infrastructure and water management Van Veldhoven did take that call to heart: before the year is over, a research tender will follow for short-term research on the health effects.

The reports consistently lack an analysis of the speed at which the concentration of micro- and nanoplastics increases in air, sea, and earth. It’s exponential. Do the math: we use more and more plastic per person, and for more and more purposes, from packaging and clothing to car tires.

Plastic litter fragments into parts that, in turn, collapse into even smaller parts. One plastic bag left behind in the environment means a few million additional microplastics later on. The visible and invisible parts penetrate food chains and are now found everywhere on earth. We produce, for example, millions of microfibers each time we do a simple load of laundry of five kilos of synthetic clothes. Through friction, those fibers are released inside the washing machine, and they’re flushed out with the dirty water. Water treatment facilities can’t stop those minuscule fibers.

While official organizations mostly call the health risks ‘uncertain’, leading to a lack of real measures being taken, the question of the ill effects of the increased concentration of plastic parts is rarely asked, let alone answered. Where will we be in a year, or in five or ten years?

It’s for good reason that an increasing number of scientists and doctors are raising the alarm. They point out that chemicals in plastic could lead to cancer, heart failure, Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, arthritis, infertility, and even damage in unborn babies. The peer-reviewed articles are plentiful, such as an article published in Nature last year, in which Swedish scientists prove that nanoplastics enter the brains of fish through the food chain, and lead to abnormal behavior in them.

There’s actually quite a lot known already.

The Plastic Soup Foundation thinks we shouldn’t wait any longer to act, based on the precautionary principle. What we know is downright alarming. The ball’s in the court of the government: national, European, and global. Politics must acknowledge that plastic in the environment is an unwanted emission, that we need norms for plastic pollution, and that the use of plastic needs to be drastically reduced.

We’ve been believing in the fairy tale of plastic recycling for too long: that we can endlessly make new plastic products from old ones, as long as we collect them and recycle.

Prime minister Narendra Modi of India has already understood that we all need to go on a ‘plastic diet’. In his country, with 1.3 billion inhabitants, plastic pollution has become unmanageable. The air is also extremely polluted, as millions of Indians burn their plastic to simply get rid of their trash, not caring about the toxic dioxins that are released during the process.

On World Environment Day, Modi announced his country will ban all single-use plastic in 2022, because: “Plastic is harmful to the environment, animals, and the health of the people.” Erik Solheim, head of the United Nations Environment Programme, welcomed the step as an inspiration for the rest of the world.

The Plastic Soup Foundation is now calling the Dutch government to take proactive measures. The Netherlands needs to dare to take the lead in the battle against the plastic tsunami threatening our planet. We’re burdening future generations with a gigantic problem, that goes hand in hand with a high price for our health, as long as we keep trivializing, hesitating, and only taking action in dribs and drabs.

The plastic industry and the packaging industry barely even made a single move by themselves. The aim of their business models, of course, is to keep producing unlimited amounts of plastic at low costs. That’s why the government needs to prescribe the plastic diet; to kick our plastic addiction, but especially for self-preservation.

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