Microplastics:
A threat to the future of water?

The European Union is on the front line in the fight for a sustainable future.

August 22, 2019

Every year, 570,000 tonnes of plastic end up in the Mediterranean Sea: the volume is equal to 33,800 plastic bottles thrown into its waters every minute.

The World Wildlife Federation (WWF), the international conservation organisation, is the latest to raise the alarm about the consequences of this phenomenon with the June 7 publication of a report entitled “Stop the Flood of Plastic: How Mediterranean countries can save their sea”.

But the problem of microplastic pollution - tiny plastic particles that have spread throughout the ecosystem - has drawn the attention of everyone from researchers to journalists due to the serious consequences that it poses to life on the planet.

In May, the Bangor University in Wales published data gathered from 10 water bodies such as lakes and rivers across the United Kingdom in collaboration with the environmental activist group, Friends of the Earth. The data show how every site examined including the remotest places once deemed to be uncontaminated like the Falls of Dochart or Loch Lomond in Scotland had traces of microplastics at two to three particles per litre.

Although the concentration was very low compared with the 80 particles per litre in the waters of the Thames River of London or the more than 1,000 litres per litre in the Tame River near Manchester, it was proof enough of the global reach of the phenomenon.

There are two types of microplastics: the first are primary microplastics that come from manufacturing, while the second are secondary microplastics from the degradation of plastic objects.

A study published in February by the National University of Singapore (NUS) shows how the surfaces of microplastics can carry toxic elements that eventually enter the food chain. «Microplastics form a large proportion of plastic pollution in marine environments. Marine organisms may consume bits of microplastics unintentionally, and this could lead to the accumulation and subsequent transfer of marine pathogens in the food chain. Hence, understanding the distribution of microplastics and identifying the organisms attached to them are crucial steps in managing the plastic pollution on a national and global scale», Sandric Leong, research lead and Senior Research Fellow at the NUS Tropical Marine Science Institute, is cited as saying in the press release about the study.

Even U.S. magazine Time brought attention to the problem in May, focusing on the consequences microplastics have for humans. Phoebe Stapleton, a researcher at Rutgers University, is quoted in the article as saying some of the plastic particles are small enough to pass through the body’s protective tissue and enter the blood stream and organs. Laboratory tests have even showed how a pregnant woman can transmit these microplastics to her unborn child. So it is still not clear how this exposure to plastics can affect human health. «Unfortunately, we do not currently know the toxicological outcomes of these exposures», Stapleton is quoted as saying. The notion that plastics are accumulating in our bodies «is uncomfortable and scary», she added. «But the studies to prove (the negative effects) need to be done».

The severity of the problem and the need to raise awareness among decision-makers and the public at large about something that is an environmental emergency led to the European Commission to put out in July 2018 an “initial statement” drafted by a scientific committee about the toxicological risks of microplastics. «The relative scarcity to-date of scientific data on the toxicological hazard of microplastics is not a reason to allow their continued release into the environment – better safer now than sorry later when science may be in a position to assess the environmental risks more comprehensively», it read.

In April, the European Commission published an independent expert report entitled “Environmental and Health Risks of Microplastic Pollution”. «Although the currently available evidence suggests that microplastic pollution at present does not pose widespread risk to humans or the environment, there are significant grounds for concern and for precautionary measures to be taken».

The report lists the preventive measures to reduce the pollution of microplastics on which the European Commission would have to act through legislation.

The growing interest on the part of the public on the matter has led to companies, cities and organisations that produce or distribute potable water to act. One example of virtuous social responsibility comes from Norsk Vann, a national association representing Norway’s water industry, mainly municipalities and companies owned by the municipalities. In a report published last year entitled “Mapping microplastic in Norwegian drinking water", it looked at the presence of microplastics in water bodies in 24 sites. Although their presence was low, it nevertheless showed the need to increase investment in research to identify the potential risks to humans and the planet. Only the cooperation among scientific research, companies and public institutions can help resolve this challenge before it is too late.