Project set to investigate impact of microplastics on human health

A new UK knowledge transfer research project has been launched to examine the impact of microplastics on human health.


The work – a two year Knowledge Transfer Partnership project between the Water Research Centre (WRc) and Queen Mary University of London - is described as a forerunner to the regulatory powers needed to tackle plastic’s presence in food and drinking water.

In a statement, project lead Dr Nabil Hajji, technical director of toxicology at WRc, said: “The fact that microplastics are present in seafood and our marine environment is well-documented, along with the toxicity concerns associated with this. However, the deeper understanding of the potential risks that this material presents to human health has been lacking.

“Understanding how the toxicity of microplastics impacts on our health is the first step to putting regulatory measures in place to protect people from any risks we identify.”

Dr Hajji said that the need to understand the impact of microplastics, as well as establish a new and accurate risk assessment to empower and influence regulatory powers, was essential and time-sensitive.

“Plastic pollution is expected to more than double by 2030 with some 40 per cent of plastic recognised as a single-use material remaining persistent in the environment. In addition, as it is degraded over time, it creates microplastics and nanoplastics – this is the substance being ingested by animals and people.”

According to WRc, several thousand chemicals are associated with plastic, including distinct additives, plasticisers, pigments, antimicrobial agents, heat stabilisers, UV stabilisers, fillers, and flame retardants.

Dr Hajji said: “Until we develop a risk assessment, we lack the sound scientific knowledge to empower our regulators. The UK Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products, and the Environment [COT] has also echoed this concern. It recommends research prioritises a risk assessment for microplastics by establishing standardised methods for the quantification of different microplastics in various food sources, and gathering information on absorption and accumulation, as well as profiling related toxicities.”

He said the project will see WRc use a chemical imaging system, incorporating quantum laser technology, to identify and classify the chemicals present in the microplastics. This will identify chemicals that can impact key pathways of human disease.

“The risk to human health will be tested in relevant human tissue and in silico models as recommended by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. At Queen Mary University of London we will perform a nanoliter-scale analysis for microplastic biomarkers for toxicity.

“The combined risk assessment and toxicology testing will be the first-of-its-kind for the development of a microplastic risk assessment consulting service in the UK. Methods developed as part of this work will be validated and recommended to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to create global standard protocols for microplastic risk assessment.”