Microplastics in the environment: a micro-issue, or reason for concern?
The best available evidence suggests that microplastics and nanoplastics do not pose a widespread risk to humans or the environment, except in small pockets. But current knowledge is limited, and the situation would worsen if pollution continues to increase at its current rate. This is the verdict of a group of experts, nominated by academies across Europe, in an Evidence Review Report published recently by SAPEA, the Science Advice mechanisms for Policy by European Academies.
SAPEA’s report will inform the forthcoming Scientific Opinion of the European Commission’s Group of Chief Scientific Advisors, due in 2019, which will then be delivered directly to the European Commission in order to inform policy-making to combat plastic pollution.
The report’s authors draw on a comprehensive examination of the best available evidence from the natural sciences, computer modelling, as well as social, political, and behavioral sciences. They highlight that micro plastics – tiny particles under 5mm in diameter – are ubiquitous in air, soil and sediment, freshwaters, seas and oceans, plants and animals, as well as human diet. These particles come from a variety of sources, including plastic products, textiles, car tires, fisheries, agriculture, industry and general waste.
Prof. Thomas Backhaus from the University of Gothenburg, one of the report authors, remarks that the simple fact that microplastics are now found in, basically, every nook and granny of our planet should give us pause. It is a clear indication that our management of plastic materials needs improvement.
The report also notes that, in controlled experiments, high concentrations of these particles cause physical harm to exposed organisms and can induce inflammation and stress.
However, the authors point out that concentration levels measured in the real world are well below such concentrations – though current measurement methods are still severely limited.
Thomas Backhaus underlines the report’s conclusion that current levels seem to be well below the concentrations proven to cause toxic effects to humans or the environment. However, he also points out that current knowledge gaps are substantial, which is why the study of toxic effects of plastic materials is an area of active research. Microplastics lost into the environment will remain there forever and will accumulate over time without any possibility for cleanup. Taken together with the well-known impacts of macroplastic debris, such as plastic waterbottles, shopping bags and fishing nets lost at sea, Thomas argues that the available evidence should clearly motivate us to curb our often-excessive plastic use.
Thomas Backhaus, professor at the University of Gothenburg, 031-786 2734, firstname.lastname@example.org
Link report SAPEA:
Photo: Thomas Backhaus