In its response to the Environment Audit Committee’s inquiry on microplastic pollution, fed into by PML scientists, the UK Government has announced today that the Department of Health will review the impact on human health of microplastic pollution.
Microplastics are tiny plastic particles which litter the ocean. They come from sources including personal care cosmetic products, the breakdown of large plastic waste, and synthetic fibres from clothing.
PML scientists fed into the report ‘Environmental impact of microplastics’, published in August, by providing evidence to the parliamentary inquiry, based on ongoing research to increase understanding and assessment of the risk that these plastic fragments may pose to organisms at the base of the marine food web. This report led to the Government announcing a ban on plastic microbeads. In its response (published today) the Government has also said that it will:
• consult on its proposed ban on microbeads in cosmetics;
• gather evidence on the environmental impacts of microbeads found in other household products, such as domestic and industrial cleaning products;
• look at what more can be done to tackle other sources of microplastics entering the marine environment.
The Government also highlighted conclusions from new research funded by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Defra, soon to be released, which show that:
• Microplastics can cause physical harm to marine worms. They remain in the gut and are subjected to extensive digestion with no nutritional benefit, resulting in energetic cost.
• Microplastics can transfer along a simple food chain from a mussel to a crab. The crabs then release the microplastics back into the environment via defecation.
• Chemical additives in plastic may be of greater harm than the pollutants from seawater that stick to microplastics.
• Microplastics accumulate pollutants from seawater but this is dependent on the plastic involved and the pollutant. These pollutants can be released from microplastics into the guts of marine organisms.
Professor Melanie Austen, Head of Science at PML commented:
“We welcome the government’s recognition that further research into sources and effects of microplastics is a priority. Another aspect of microplastics is how they affect humans. PML, partially funded by the People’s Postcode Lottery Dream Fund, are investigating the economic and social consequences of changes to the health of marine life and ecosystem functioning that are caused by the presence of plastics in the marine environment. PML is currently reviewing the existing global scientific research on impacts of plastics on marine ecosystems and then assessing the resulting economic, social and potentially health impacts that may arise. We are looking for evidence, for example, on whether effects on animals at the bottom of the food chain will also in turn affect the fish and shellfish that eat them and hence the availability of seafood in the future. We are also looking for evidence on the effects of people’s concerns that sea food, which is important in people’s diets, is less safe to eat, as well as the effects on tourism and recreation and on people’s relaxation and wellbeing of impacts on key marine animals and birds; plus effects of the plastic litter on beaches.”
Dr Pennie Lindeque who leads the microplastic research group at PML commented: “We know from our laboratory studies that microscopic plastics are readily consumed by the tiny organisms, zooplankton, at the base of the food web and this can have significant implications for the health of those organisms in terms of reproduction and mortality. In the future, we aim to understand where in the ocean the overlap between zooplankton and microplastics is likely to be sufficient to cause an impact. We have hypothesised that this is likely to be in highly productive coastal areas, which may impact organisms destined for human consumption, such as fish.”