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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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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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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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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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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

DECLINE IN PLASTIC BAGS ON NORTH SEA SEABED

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.