Health: What is the risk of microplastics in our environment?

Health: What is the risk of microplastics in our environment?

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Information on health risks of microplastics for humans

In recent years, plastic particles in drinking water and in food have been discovered in scientific studies. And recently, researchers have also demonstrated microplastics in humans for the first time. Are there any health risks?

Microplastics detected in human stool

The Austrian Federal Environment Agency and the Medical University of Vienna recently discovered in a study for the first time microplastics in human stool - in all of the eight international participants. In a current communication, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) now summarizes its findings on possible health risks of microplastics for humans.

Microplastics in food

According to the information, the BfR has no reliable data on the chemical composition, particle size and content of microplastic particles in food.

Due to the lack of reliable data, a health risk assessment for the consumption of food contaminated with microplastic particles is currently only possible to a limited extent.

At the request of the BfR, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) prepared a comprehensive scientific opinion on the "Occurrence of microplastic and nanoplastic in food, especially in marine animals" years ago.

Accordingly, there is the possibility of oral ingestion of microplastics of a certain size, although the fate and possible degradation in the gastrointestinal tract have not been adequately investigated due to the lack of analytical methods and valid studies.

According to EFSA, available studies show that absorption in the intestine appears to be very low (results from rodent studies).

Accordingly, only microparticles smaller than 150 micrometers (µm, 1 µm corresponds to 0.001 mm) can cross the intestinal barrier and only reach microparticles smaller than 1.5 µm deep organs.

No results are currently available from human studies.

Plastic particles can be absorbed in the intestinal wall

The BfR's first own investigations into cultures of human intestinal epithelial cells and in animal experiments showed that plastic particles up to a diameter of approximately four µm can be taken up in the cell culture of epithelial cells of the intestinal wall.

However, animal experiments showed that despite the administration of very large amounts of plastic particles in the size of 1 - 10 µm, these were only occasionally found in the intestinal epithelial cells examined.

The investigations carried out at BfR with various model particles to date on the oral intake of microparticles gave no evidence of damage to the intestinal tissue.

The institute has no information on whether microplastic particles can be deposited in the body.

Micro plastic particles in cosmetic products

From the BfR's point of view, according to the current state of knowledge, a health risk from dermal or unintentional oral intake via peels or shower gels is unlikely, since the micro-plastic particles occurring there are larger than 1 µm.

With this particle size, it is not to be expected that the products will be absorbed through healthy and intact skin with foreseeable use.

Even if cosmetic products are accidentally swallowed, it can be assumed that absorption via the gastrointestinal tract would only be possible to a small extent and only with particles of a few micrometers in size and that the majority of the particles are excreted via the stool.

According to the BfR, it is unlikely that health-relevant amounts of ethylene from polyethylene will be released from micro-plastic particles during the passage through the gastrointestinal tract.

Transport vehicle for other undesirable substances

It is described that substances can attach to microplastic particles. These substances bind according to their chemical-physical surface properties and can interact with the microplastic particles.

Due to the predominantly non-polar, lipophilic (= fat-loving) properties of microplastic particles, substances such as e.g. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are discussed.

To date, no research has been carried out to determine whether these substances actually contribute to human exposure through the uptake of loaded microplastic particles.

A model calculation by EFSA shows that the daily intake of PCBs and PAHs from eating contaminated microplastic particles in mussels can only increase by 0.006% for PCBs and less than 0.004% for PAHs compared to other intake pathways.

The extreme case was assumed that a person consumes 225 g of mussels with a content of 7 µg microplastic particles per kg of mussels (equivalent to 900 particles), which in turn have high levels of PCB and PAH and of which the PCB and PAH are complete pass into people.

It is described that biofilms from bacteria can develop on particles that e.g. Floating in the water. It has not been investigated whether and to what extent microplastic particles can act as vehicles for bacteria or viruses that have an impact on food safety or human health.

Avoidance of human absorption of plastic

Sources of microplastic particle entries in the environment and in the food chain are diverse. General recommendations for protective measures cannot currently be formulated.

There is a great need for research in relation to the question of whether and under what conditions microplastic particles can have a potential hazard.

Entry paths for microplastic particles into the environment and the food chain must be researched further and solutions for avoiding entries must be sought. (ad)

Author and source information

Video: Report: How plastic in the Ocean impacts your health. #OceanRescue (January 2023).