A pioneering new research project carried out by UK scientists to examine the effect of microplastics on human health was announced yesterday (Monday 23 October 2023, full press release attached).   

The impact of microplastics on human health is currently poorly understood due to an extremely limited evidence base.  However, scientists have estimated the average person eats 5 grams of microplastics in a week – about the weight of a credit card.  It’s believed the average person eats, drinks and breathes between 78,000 and 211,000 microplastic particles every year – and that is considered an underestimate.  

The research – endorsed and part-funded by Innovate UK and the UK government – will be a crucial forerunner to any regulatory powers needed to tackle microplastics’ presence in our food and drinking water. 

This is the first major study of its kind that will aim to quantify the risk to human health – and, because it’s an inaugural study, the lead scientist – Dr Nabil Hajji, Technical Director of Toxicology at the Water Research Centre (WRc), a UK research consultancy in water and the environment – says it will establish pioneering guidelines to inform and guide other much-needed global research in this area.

WRc (part of the RSK Group, the UKs largest environmental business) is working with Queen Mary University in London on the research project.

Any plastic that isn’t recycled remaining in the environment will eventually be broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, as natural forces such as wind, water currents and UV radiation break it down into what’s called microplastics.

Microplastics have been found in tissues and organs including human blood, lung tissue, placentas and colons.  Ingested microplastics accumulated in the body can also trigger an immune response, while chronic exposure may cause more health problems. However, to date, no definitive evidence has been reported regarding exposure levels due to a limited number of studies on the exposure doses, so the risk to human health is still unknown.

In a report last year (August 2022), the World Health Organisation recognised the current evidence base is limited and called for more research.  This is why the WRc-led research is so important. 

More detail on how the research will be undertaken is in the attached press release, but basically it will involve collecting more than a thousand water samples from various parts of the UK – including drinking water sources – then employing state-of-the-art laser and infra-red technology to detect the presence of microplastic particles in those samples. 

The research team will then undertake a two-stage process to determine their impact on human health – firstly throughcomputer modelling testing (in silico tests) to establish relationships between chemical structures and toxicity, providing predictive insights; and also in vitro human tissue testing, which will involve replicating human tissue models to assess how microplastics and associated chemicals interact with biological systems.

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