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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 

The first Plastic Health Summit in the world

We eat, drink and breathe microplastics. Does it make us ill? This is the key question during the world’s first Plastic Health Summit. On October 3 2019, the Plastic Soup Foundation and ZonMw, in cooperation with the Plastic Health Coalition, are organizing conference around the effects of plastic on human health. The initial test results of no less than 15 ground-breaking Dutch scientific research projects will be presented.

New evidence will also be presented regarding the health effects on our day-to-day life of – for example – BPA, PFAS, phthalates and other chemical additives to plastic. We will bring the different players together – industry, politicians, scientists – as we search for shared solutions and strive to form concrete partnerships.

Admission to the conference in Amsterdam is on a “By Invite Only” basis. Do you think you should attend this prestigious event? Tell us why you should be there in a mail to rsvp@plasticsoupfoundation.org

 

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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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Sustainable Development Goals and fighting the plastic soup

Maria Westerbos’ opinion article on Impakter

Amsterdam/Washington D.C. – When the United Nations adopted the Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, the fight against plastic pollution was not recognized as a separate SDG. Following “The Honolulu Commitment” of 2011 it was presented as a marine debris problem. Plastic pollution was not yet conceived to compromise freshwater environments, land or human health. SDG target 14.1, with its focus on on reduction of marine pollution of all kinds, was therefore often referred to when combatting international plastic pollution. In the meantime, however, our insights have increased significantly.

Framing the issue

The Plastic Soup Foundation, together with an international coalition of NGOs united in the Break Free From Plastic movement, argue that it is not SDG 14 that has to be taken as the starting point for strengthening international governance structures to fight plastic pollution. The world should instead (also) concentrate on SDG 3 (Health and well-being) and SDG 12 (Sustainable consumption and production) in order to prioritize real solutions that address the problem at its core.

This changed focus implies that the world has to address the pollution caused by plastic throughout its entire lifecycle, and that the initial focus should be to realize an absolute reduction in plastic production in order to avoid and prevent plastic from entering the environment and imposing health risks. The world must refute the solutions of the multinational firms that are promising 100% recyclable packaging, using recycled material to replace new plastic and to reduce the amount of plastic per product. These solutions, which are often followed by national governments when determining policy, simply allow business as usual, in other words: an unlimited growth of plastic, especially single use plastic packaging.

Not SDG 14, but SDG 3 and 12

Unfortunately, the fight against plastic pollution is not a separate SDG. However, the SDGs do offer a framework for action when putting emphasis on SDG 14 as well as SDG 3 and SDG 12. A new global convention should be drafted to prevent both growth in plastics pollution and harm to human health at all phases of the production cycle.

The full article by Maria Westerbos, director of Plastic Soup Foundation, published by Impakter SDG series on March 27, 2019.

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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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Important new report: Plastic & Health

Amsterdam, 25 February 2019– The effects of plastic on human health has never been closely researched. To date, research has focused on specific points in the life cycle of plastic. Scientists and environmental organisations have now joined forces to examine the relationship between plastic and health for the entire life cycle of plastic. The Plastic & Health. The hidden costs of a plastic planet report clearly shows that each separate phase in the life cycle of plastic threatens public health and that these phases should not be viewed independently from each other. The phases in the chain were defined as:

  • mining and transport of fossil raw materials
  • refining and production
  • processing of the raw materials into pellets
  • consumer products and packaging
  • waste processing
  • plastic in the environment.

Countless illnesses are related to plastic. The report shows the severity of the accumulated health risks throughout the plastic chain and identifies the people that are most at risk. The authors conclude that plastic is posing a health risk worldwide. It must be countered on all fronts. Their recommendations include:

  • centralising the entire plastic chain
  • complete reduction in the production and use of plastic
  • complete transparency of the chemicals used by industry
  • reduction in exposure to toxic substances, including changing national and international regulations.

The report was produced on the initiative of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). Read the summary here.

Maria Westerbos, Director of the Plastic Soup Foundation says “How much of a threat plastic poses to our health is being asked more frequently. This report comes at the right time and no one can avoid it. We will definitely draw on its findings in our own health campaign and coalition.”


Also read: Do not reuse supermarket water bottles

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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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Announcement: The Plastic Health Coalition gains two new strategic partners

Just one month ago, in an effort to inform people and encourage the reconsideration of our dependence on disposable plastic, we launched the Plastic Health Coalition, a platform for the collection and dissemination of knowledge regarding plastics and human health. Since then, our coalition of 8 partners has already welcomed 2 more organizations in our fight against the plastic soup; the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) and Just One Ocean.

The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) is the leading non-profit organization which addresses how the environment affects human health in Europe and beyond. It works to shape laws and initiatives that promote planetary and human health to protect those most affected by pollution and prevent diseases. Achieving a non-toxic circular economy, in which human exposure to toxic chemicals is minimized and the protection of our environment is prioritized, is the driver of HEAL’s policy and campaign work and a natural reason for joining the Plastic Health Coalition. Recent examples of HEAL’s work on toxics in relation to plastics include the 2018 join report Toxic Loophole, which exposed that recycled plastics in consumer products across Europe are contaminated with brominated flame retardants. HEAL’s membership base consists of more than 70 member-organizations worldwide, including international, European, national, and local groups of health professionals, nonprofit health insurers, patients, citizens, women, youth, and environmental experts, which represent over 200 million people across 53 countries.

Just One Ocean is similarly passionate about its mission, which focuses on the conservation of our oceans vis-a-vis a wide range of dangers, including plastic pollution. It works alongside other NGOs, governments, businesses, industry, and local communities to discover and develop solutions to the many diverse problems the oceans are facing, and believes that public engagement is one of the most important tools which can be used protect our blue planet. Founded by the diver and underwater photographer David Jones in 2014, the organization has been accepted as a member of the European Citizen Science Association and counts on the participation of individuals, governments, NGOs, businesses, and academic institutions to contribute to possible solutions.

We believe that both HEAL and Just One Ocean have dynamic strengths to share with the Plastic Health Coalition and are proud to include them as two invaluable partners in the fight for a healthier planet, and by extension, healthier people. Together, we can save the ocean and save ourselves.