WHO calls for further research into the impacts of microplastics

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called for further investigation into the impact of microplastics on the environment and human health, following the release of analysis of current research regarding microplastics in drinking water.

An image of microbeads on a finger

Microplastics, which can be defined as plastics less than five millimetres in length, can be formed by the fragmentation of larger plastics, or are often intentionally added to cosmetics or personal care products. These tiny particles of plastic are small enough to pass through water filtration systems, and have been found to occur in both bottled and tap water.

According to the WHO, the current data is insufficient to draw any firm conclusions about the impacts of microplastics, and there is no reliable information to suggest that microplastics in drinking water have any serious health risks.

The analysis suggests that microplastics larger than 150 micrometres are likely to be excreted directly through faeces, and uptake of smaller particles is expected to be limited.

The WHO states that further research is needed to obtain a better assessment of the risk of microplastics, and recommends that water suppliers and regulators should continue to prioritise removing microbial pathogens and chemicals that are known to impact human health.

Commenting on the research, Dr Maria Neira, Director, Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health, at WHO, said: “We urgently need to know more about the health impact of microplastics because they are everywhere – including in our drinking-water. Based on the limited information we have, microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels. But we need to find out more. We also need to stop the rise in plastic pollution worldwide.”

‘Affecting ecosystems in detrimental ways’

Although there may be insufficient evidence to prove that microplastics are a significant concern for human health, the damaging impact of plastics on the environment is undeniable.

Microplastics make up almost 13 per cent of the 12.2 million tonnes of plastic ending up in the marine environment every year, according to a 2016 study by Eunomia Research and Consulting. In 2017, researchers from the University of Newcastle found plastic particles to be ubiquitous in the deepest part of the world’s oceans, where it is mistaken for food and ingested by marine organisms.

In January 2018, the UK Government introduced a ban on the manufacture of cosmetic products containing microbeads, following a public consultation of industry and environmental groups. The European Union has also proposed a wide-ranging ban on microplastics in products.

Commenting on the WHO's analysis, Simon Hann, Lifecycle Assessment Specialist at Eunomia Research and Consulting, added: “Whilst the limited evidence is encouraging this does not detract from the larger issue of microplastics in all environments affecting ecosystems in detrimental ways that we are only just beginning to comprehend.

“Inaction will only result in these materials accumulating further and increase the risk of negative consequences throughout the food chain; therefore it is still important to focus on preventive measures to ensure that plastic does not enter the environment as we can’t remove it once it’s out there.”

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