Government to investigate health impact of marine plastic pollution

The Department of Health has announced that it will review the impact of microplastics on human health, following an inquiry by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

The publication of an EAC’s report, ‘Environmental Impact of Microplastics’, this August prompted the government to announce a ban on plastic microbeads, tiny pieces of plastic less than five millimetres wide that are used as exfoliants in a range of cosmetic products such as body scrubs or toothpaste.

Microbeads, however, are only one source of microplastic marine pollution, which also enter the marine environment through the washing of polyester clothing and when larger pieces of plastic that enter the oceans break down into tiny pieces through exposure to sunlight and waves. Increasing scientific research is indicating that these particles enter the food web and wind up on our dinner plates, though little is know about their impact on human health.

In its report, the EAC, a cross-party group of MPs elected by the House of Commons to push government policy towards ‘environmental protection and sustainable development’, stated, however, that microplastics cause significant damage to the marine ecosystem and called for more research into the impact on human health. The damage comes about as fish and other creature ingest the material, with an estimated 80,000 to 219,000 tonnes of microplastics entering the oceans every from Europe.

Responding to the report, the government has said that it will:

  • consult on its proposed ban on microbeads in cosmetics;
  • gather evidence on the environmental impacts of microbeads found in other household products, such as domestic and industrial cleaning products; and
  • look at what more can be done to tackle other sources of microplastics entering the marine environment.

New research from Defra (soon to be released) has also led the government to conclude that:

  • microplastics can physically harm marine worms, by remaining in their gut and being subjected to extensive digestion with no nutritional benefit;
  • microplastics can move along a simple food chains from mussels to crabs, and the crabs then release the microplastics into the environment through defecation;
  • chemical additives in plastics may cause greater harm than pollutants already present in seawater, which are attracted to and adhere to microplastics; and
  • the pollutants accumulated on microplastics from seawater can then be released into the gut of marine organisms that have ingested the microplastics.

Government review “welcome news”

In response to the governments decision to review the effect of microplastics on human health, Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said: “It’s welcome news that the Chief Medical Officer will investigate the impact of microplastics on human health. Our inquiry recommended more research in this area – as microplastics are found frequently in seafood like shellfish and oysters.

“We also welcome the fact that Defra will shortly be publishing a report on the potential harm that microplastics can cause in the marine environment. We look forward to seeing the government bring forward its formal consultation on its plan to ban microbeads by the end of the year.”

The review will include a consultation that will then lead to proposed legislation for a ban on microbeads which will then be put before MPs for a vote.

The environmental impact of microplastics

As already mentioned, microplastics have a significant negative impact on marine ecosystems.

Micropbeads slip through waste treatment systems and enter the oceans where, along with larger pieces of plastic that have not entered the waste management process, they photodegrade, when exposed to the sun’s UV rays, into ever smaller pieces of plastic.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation claimed in January that by 2050 there would be more plastic in the ocean than fish, owing to the leakage of eight million tonnes of plastics into the ocean every year.

An estimated 90 per cent of seabirds have ingested plastic, which can cause fatal gut blockages or stomach punctures. Microplastics not only cause physical harm to marine wildlife through their physical make-up, but also through the fact that pollutants such as DDT and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) attach themselves to the plastic, which potentially result in cancerous tumours or birth defects.

More information about the potential health impacts of marine plastic pollution can be found in Resource’s feature article.