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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


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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Common periwinkel is easy prey because of toxic microplastics

Amsterdam, 29 November 2018 – The common periwinkel (Littorina littorea), a sea dwelling snail, is on the menu of the green shore crab (Carcinus maenas). Normally, the periwinkle defends itself by retreating into its shell as soon as it spots the crab. Research is now showing that this defence mechanism, called chemosensory, does not work any more because of the toxic substances from microplastics.

In the laboratory of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France, snails were placed in water with a concentration of microplastic pellets. New pellets were used and, in the same experimental set-up, pellets from the beaches of the Calais Strait. This last group of pellets had been in the sea for a long time. The new and still clean pellets had some impact on the behavioural change of the periwinkels, but the pellets from the sea had a much greater impact. Microplastics in the sea attract toxic substances from their surroundings like a magnet. The research is published in Biology Letters.

The chemical substances that attach to the plastic in sea water or that leach out of the plastic, impair the defence mechanism of the periwinkle. They are rendered unable to detect the predatory crabs on time. The results suggest a drastic effect of microplastics at sea on animals that are dependent on chemosensory. This is the first study that not only looks at the consequences of one species, but also at the interaction between two species, one of which is the prey of the other.

Also read: Endless varieties of wildlife consuming and defecating plastic

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Endless varieties of wildlife consuming and defecating plastic

Amsterdam, 27 November 2018 – Dutch researchers determined in 2015 already that the number of marine species affected by plastic either through swallowing it, or becoming entangled in it, had doubled since 1997: from a registered total of 267 to 557. In 2018, National Geographic reported this number as being around the 700. These numbers are, however, no reflection on the actual number of (marine) creatures impeded in any way by plastic. It merely reports on the number of varieties that were scientifically researched.

Do fresh water fish in the Amazon also ingest plastic? Until recently, this was an unanswered question because no research had ever been done. This is no longer the case and a total of sixteen varieties of fish in the River Xingu (Brazil) have since been scientifically researched. Thirteen varieties were found to contain microplastics – that’s 80%. A total of 172 fish were dissected and 96 pieces of plastic were retrieved from the stomachs of 45 fish. The most frequently occurring type of plastic was polyethylene. You can read the article from the magazine Environmental Pollution here. Scientists are alarmed that plastic pollution turns out to be widespread in the Amazon basin.

The fact that three varieties of fish held no plastic is no real indication that these fish are free of all plastic. It could just be coincidence that those examples just happened not to contain anything. If more examples of these three particular varieties of fish were examined it could easily transpire that they too have plastics in their innards.

Other than stomach contents, faeces is also a good indicator for the presence of microplastics. It transpires that practically all species, whenever researched, contain plastic in their poop. Not only humans but South American Fur Seals in the wild (a Science Direct itemor seabirds (as reported in Science of the Total Environment).

It’s gradually approaching the stage when there is no longer any point in tallying the numbers of creatures affected by plastic, but we must find proper scientific answers to the following: Which of the world’s species can we reasonably assume are not in any way touched by plastic, do not become entangled in it, neither ingest nor defecate it? Because the answer will indubitably be: horrendously few.

Photo: microplastics found in Amazonian fish 

Do read:

From plastic soup to plastic poop
Plastizers in plastic slow down babys language development 


Mosquitoes transfer microplastics from water to land

Amsterdam, 19 October 2018 – Microplastics float around in oceans, but can also be found in large numbers in rivers and lakes. Species that live in these waters, such as insect larvae, can therefore be exposed to plastics. For the first time, an Irish scientific research shows that grown mosquitoes carry microplastics inside of them, which they ingested as larvae.

The researchers experimentally exposed mosquito larvae to microplastics the size of 0.0002 centimeters and 0.0015 centimeters. It appears that mosquito larvae mostly ingest larger quantities of the smaller microplastics, varying from 2500 to 5048 particles. The larger microplastics were found in numbers of 91 up to 650 particles per larva. Subsequently, the researchers examined whether the microplastics were still present in the adult mosquitoes after pupating. They almost exclusively found the smaller microplastics, even though there was a decrease of the quantity of these microplastics, with particles in an adult mosquito varying from 11 to 78. Possible health consequences for the mosquitoes were not examined.

This research shows that microplastics can be transferred from polluted rivers to less polluted areas through mosquitoes. The scientists therefore pose that other flying insects that develop as larvae in polluted water will most likely ingest microplastics too.

That last postulation seems to be confirmed by another, almost simultaneously published, research. This research established that almost 50% of all insects in freshwater systems in South Wales carried microplastics inside of them. Species who eat these insects, such as birds or bats, are therefore also at a risk of being exposed to microplastics.

Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation: “The fact that insects can pass on microplastics is new and alarming. Is there a connection with the massive insect death rate? Researchers should prioritize this question immediately.”

Also read: Bristle worms eat plastic


Amsterdam, 27 June 2018 – The seabed of the North Sea and the Celtic Sea have been monitored for, among others, plastic waste. Recently, the results of this long-term study —25 years’— have been published in Science of The Total Environment.

During the research period (1992-2017), waters surrounding the UK have been trawled 39 times. The contents of the fishing nets trawling the seabed were analyzed for a total of 2461 times. Plastics are widespread, varying from 0 to 1835 pieces of plastic per square kilometre. Oddly enough, there is no clear trend visible regarding the increase or decrease of the amount of plastic on the seabed. However, there are trends visible within certain categories of plastics.

An increase of waste originating from fishing fleets operating in the North Sea has been recorded.

The number of carrier bags found on the seabed of the North Sea has decreased since 2010. The authors of the study mentioned several different possible explanations for this decrease, for instance, a change in the composition of the plastic bags (this influences the speed of decomposition of the plastic) and the implementation of policies that reduced the use of single use carrier bags.

The researchers compared the waste found on the seabed of the two different seas, the North Sea and Celtic Sea. Plastics form the largest share of waste, varying from 65% to 94%. These plastics mainly consist of packaging, bags, bottles and fishing debris. And often organisms, such as muscles and polyps, inhabit this plastic. There were no large differences between the amount of plastic recorded in the North Sea and the Celtic Sea. Furthermore, there was no difference between the coastal areas and the open sea. And, compared to other studies, the amount of plastic found in both seas is relatively low. The current to the northeast of the Atlantic probably carries the plastic away. The study’s findings clearly indicate that there is evidence that implementing policies that decrease the use of plastic lead to a decrease of plastic waste at sea.

Also read: Plastics found in the deepest part of the ocean


Plastics found in the deepest part of the ocean

Amsterdam, 30 May 2018 – For thirty years, plastic pollution has been monitored in the deep sea. The outcomes of this study were recently published in the journal Marine Policy. They show for the first time that plastic pollution occurs at depths of 6,000 metres and beyond. In the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans, a plastic bag was found at 10,898 metres. Most of the research was carried out in the western Pacific Ocean where 1,109 larger pieces of plastic were found at great depth. Eighty-nine percent of them were single-use plastics. The highest concentration of plastic was found at around 6,000 metres depth, with 335 pieces of plastic per square kilometre.

As no light reaches these depths, there is little life here. However, these areas display a striking phenomenon. Fissures in the earth’s crust mean that minerals from the hot and cold layers enter the water. These minerals are a source of food for so-called chemosynthetic bacteria. In turn, these bacteria are the base of the local ecosystems that include giant tube worms, different species of fish, corals and sea anemones. Photographs around the cold fissures show organisms entangled in plastic.

Up to now, little is known about the quantity of plastic in the deeper parts of the ocean. This is worrying because life at these great depths is highly vulnerable to disruptions in their very slow growth rates. It is therefore essential that more research is done into the quantity of plastic in deep sea ecosystems and any potential harmful effects.


Swiss Alps: microplastics everywhere

Amsterdam, 4 May 2018 – By now it is almost too obvious to state that all across the world plastic is found in the environment. That it is actually true has been shown by a new Swiss study. Even in the most remote nature reserves high up in the mountains microplastics are being discovered and far more than researchers had expected. Moreover, The Guardian, who reports on the research, points out that Switzerland is the best-performing European country when it comes to collecting plastic waste. All the plastic is collected and then recycled or burned. Nevertheless, microplastics are found all around.

The research analyzed soil samples from 29 river catchment areas. The researchers found microplastics in 90% of the samples. There was a clear connection between high concentrations of microplastics and the presence of larger pieces of plastic, the mesoplastics. The microplastics in this instance seem to originate from plastic waste through fragmentation. A connection to population density was also shown; the higher the number of people in an area, the higher the concentration of microplastics.

Especially striking was the presence of microplastics in the remote national reserves, which can only be reached on foot. These mostly concerned very tiny plastic particles (<500 μm diameter). The researchers state that this is due to distribution through wind.

The research appeared in Environmental Science and Technology.

Also read: Poor air quality caused by microplastics

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How damaging is breathing in microplastics?

Amsterdam, 23 March 2018 – Around 16% of the plastic produced annually in the world consists of textile fibers. In recent decades, production has grown by 6% every year and is now around 60 million tons per year. Synthetic clothing is responsible for endless amounts of microfibers which can even be found in drinking water. And what’s worse, hardly any research has been carried out into the presence of tiny plastic particles in the air.

An earlier French study showed that plastic microfibers are not just in outdoor air, they are also present inside buildings and in particular in dust on the floor. An analysis of fibers in the air shows that 29% is plastic. Research has already shown that people breathe in microfibers. Indoors it is babies that crawl on the floor, who breathe in the most fibers.

Does breathing these fibers in damage health? In a recently published article in ScienceDirect, the French researchers, this time together with their British counterparts, expressed their extreme concern and called for urgent more in-depth interdisciplinary research. In their article entitled “Microplastics in air: Are we breathing it in?” they discuss where particles are coming from and what the health risks are. Most of the particles people breathe in find their way out again.

However there are fears that some of the particles penetrate deep into the lungs and remain there permanently, simply because plastic does not break down. It is possible that the body reacts to these particles, for example through infections, especially in people who are less fit.

The findings in the article conclude:

  • the concentration of plastic fibers in the air indoors is substantially higher than in the air outdoors, indoor fibers are also longer;
  • plastic particles are found in lung tissue. This indicates that the body is not able to rid itself of all particles;
  • when particles remain in the lungs, they remain there for a long time because they are bio-persistent;
  • all kinds of fibers appear to cause infections when the concentration reaches a certain level or after prolonged inhalation. It also matters how long the fibers are because longer fibers appear to be more damaging;
  • workers who handle plastic textile fibers are known to suffer from many types of lung disease, from coughing to limited lung capacity;
  • a significant shortcoming in the research is the measurement method. The researchers were only able to study fibers of 50 μm, but it is vital that particles under 10 μm in size are studied.

Also read: California legislation will require polyester clothing to have a microfiber pollution label


An underestimated threat: the pollution of land by microplastics

Photo: Falk Negrazius, Benin Wikicommons

Amsterdam, 1 March 2018 – Microplastics are not just a threat to the marine environment, they also threaten the land environment. The long-term impact of microplastics in soil can have all kinds of negative effects on terrestrial ecosystems, in other words on land, with even greater impact than at sea. German researchers at the Leibniz-Institute published a warning in Sciencedaily.

The researchers point out that much more plastic finishes up on land than at sea, four to 23 times as much. Worldwide around a third of all the plastic produced finishes up in soils or freshwaters. An important source is sewage sludge, which is used as manure. This sludge contains microplastics which have been removed from water in water purification plants, for instance larger microfibers released during the machine washing of synthetic clothing.

The researchers wondered what impact microplastics have on land and analyzed the little research which has been done on this subject. Among their findings was the following:

  • Microplastics can be found in agricultural soil all over the world;
  • Microplastics can spread pathogenic bacteria and effect the fitness of worms;
  • When additives such as Bisphenol A leach out of plastic, hormone disruptive substances are released.

The long-term effects of these phenomena are still largely unknown. It is therefore essential that programs to measure the effects of microplastics in soil are developed quickly in order to assess the risks.