Research reveals damaging impact of microplastics on human health

Microplastics may cause damage to human immune cells, according to researchers at the University Medical Centre (UMC) Utrecht.

Defined as plastics less than five millimetres in length, microplastics are either formed by the fragmentation of larger plastics, or are intentionally added to cosmetics and personal care products. These plastics are small enough to pass through water filtration systems and have therefore been found to occur in drinking water.

An image of microbeads

Presenting their findings at the Plastic Health Summit in Amsterdam today (3 October), the UMC researchers revealed that immune cells that recognise and attack microplastics will die quickly as a result of the contact.

The study, led by Nienke Vrisekoop, Assistant Professor at the UMC Utrecht Centre for Quantitative Immunology, found that immune cells that encountered microplastics died around three times more quickly than those that didn’t.

Commenting on the research, Vrisekoop said: “These results raise serious questions about what microplastics are doing to our immune health. Urgent further research is needed to paint as full a picture as possible.”

Sian Sutherland, co-founder of plastic waste campaign group A Plastic Planet, added: “Anyone who cares about their health or the health of their children will be profoundly worried about today’s findings.

“With plastic production set to quadruple in the next decades, we need to ask ourselves – is this risk worth it for the sake of convenience in our throwaway lifestyle or is this finally the proof needed to turn off the plastic tap?

“The Plastic Health Summit is a vital catalyst for us to finally understand the true cost of plastic on human health.”

The summit, organised by marine conservation group The Plastic Soup Foundation and supported by A Plastic Planet, provided new evidence to draw a link between plastic pollution and ill-health.

Maria Westerbros, founder and director of the Plastic Soup Foundation, said: “With this summit, we want to prove once and for all that plastic doesn’t just harm nature and animals, but also ourselves. If we want to give our children and their children a fair chance, then all this proof is enough to turn the tide.”

Damaging impacts

The damaging impacts of microplastics have come under increased scrutiny over recent years, with a 2016 study by Eunomia Research and Consulting revealing that primary microplastics – those intentionally added to cosmetic products – make up almost 13 per cent of the 12.2 million tonnes of plastic ending up in the marine environment each year.

In 2017, researchers at the University of Newcastle discovered microplastics in the deepest parts of the world’s oceans – including the Mariana Trench – where they can be mistaken for food and ingested by marine organisms.

Taking action to tackle this, the UK Government introduced a ban in January 2018 on the manufacture of cosmetic and personal care products containing microbeads, describing the ban as ‘one of the world’s toughest’.

However, there has previously been a lack of direct evidence linking microplastics and human health, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently calling for further investigation into the effects of microplastics, stating that the current data is insufficient to draw any firm conclusions. 

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