Microplastics are everywhere

Published: 25 October 2018

The European Parliament voted on September 24th by a large majority to ban disposable plastic products. The aim is to put a stop to the endless stream of plastic that ends up in the sea or on our streets, where it breaks up into small particles and turns into microplastics. It doesn't look as though we can escape it any longer: microplastics are everywhere!

They are in the plastic soup that crumbles in our oceans to form minuscule, and often toxic, particles that enter the organs of sea animals such as fish and mussels. Fish and shellfish that, in turn, people eat. To date, this was the best-known example of the possible health risks of microplastics. Yesterday, findings were published showing that microplastics have been found in human feces for the first time. ‘That’s no surprise,’ says Deltares researcher Dick Vethaak. ‘We ingest microplastics in all sorts of ways’.

Microplastics in the dust in our homes

Plastic food packaging, plasticised cups from a coffee machine, the carpet at the office, synthetic clothes, polymer wall paints, car tyres… the list is endless. Microplastics are released when we use all these products. The particles float in the air and we inhale them. Or they are deposited on our plates or our food, and they are even found in dust in our homes. So it’s hardly surprising that microplastics have already been found in honey, milk, tap water and table salt.

Food contaminated with microplastics

Dick Vethaak is concerned: ‘We already knew we were eating all sorts of food contaminated with microplastics, which is bad news in itself. The study showing that microplastics have been found in human feces proves this convincingly and it also demonstrates that exposure is widespread on different continents. But nothing was said about how much plastic is left in the body. And the study didn’t look at the very smallest plastic particles that we swallow and breathe. And they are the particles that could pose the greatest risk to health. The study definitely reinforces a sense of urgency: further research is needed, and fast.’

The Deltares researcher believes that the ban on the use of disposable plastic items in the EU was overdue. He sees it as an important step in the right direction that can pave the way to tackling other sources of microplastics.

The ban on disposable plastic products will only take effect from 2021 onwards and it still has to be ratified by all the individual member states.