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Microplastics: A Threat to Human Health?

Diverse scientific methods, variability in scientific rigor, and the pressure to deliver concrete actions on microplastic testing, all contribute to the lack of harmonized regulations in this field

Tarun Anumol, PhD

Tarun Anumol, PhD, is the director of global environment & food applied markets at Agilent Technologies.

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Microplastics are a growing global concern for everyone. Due to their small size, microplastics have the potential to spread throughout all parts of our environment—from mountains and oceans to our drinking water—and are consumed regularly by humans. With widespread and mounting attention from international organizations, policymakers, economists, the scientific community, and the public, the pressure is on to determine the “true” impact of microplastics.

Despite the growing worldwide attention and ambitious goals to rid them from the environment, the adverse effects of microplastics on human health are still unclear. The recently published World Health Organization (WHO) report on microplastics in drinking water concluded that the risk to human health from microplastics is low as it currently stands but more studies are needed. However, this risk level has the potential to increase over the coming decades if the accumulation of microplastics continues to rise at its present rate. As a result, the WHO urgently calls for more research in the field of microplastics pollution to develop a clear, reliable assessment framework for the exposure risk of microplastics and their potential impact on human health. Developing standardized scientific methods to detect, identify, quantify, and suitably characterize microplastics across the globe, which are currently lacking, is the first step in responding to this call to action. Once armed with robust scientific understanding, regulations and concrete actions for microplastics can be designed.

Regulating a cross-border issue

According to published circular economy strategies, plastic value chains have developed across countries where plastic waste is traded internationally, often forming in areas with less stringent environmental protection standards in place.

It is important to recognize that microplastics represent a cross-border issue, requiring global cooperation and action. Disparate measures, often based on varied regional priorities on microplastics management, are in place in different regions around the world. In Europe, even neighboring countries like France and Germany have different approaches to intentionally-added microplastics particles in consumer and professional products. For example, France has banned the use of intentionally-added microplastics in rinse-off cosmetic products whereas Germany has thus far taken no action on banning microplastics in rinse-off cosmetic products, despite emphasizing the need for global action to tackle microplastic pollution. However, one consistent trait across every region is that more scientific research and cross-border access to standardized data is required to improve our understanding of microplastics and inform concrete, legally binding regulations.

Europe is positioned to lead the way for harmonized regulatory guidelines

Through the introduction of various European-led legislations looking at the impact of (micro)plastics, including the publication of the most advanced scientific review to date, Europe is set to lead the transition toward a harmonized set of regulations, at least for the region. Early this year, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) submitted a restriction proposal for intentionally-added microplastic particles added to products. Additionally, in 2017, the commission confirmed it would focus on plastic production and use, working toward the goal of ensuring that by 2030, all plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable in a cost-effective way.

Across the ocean, California is taking the lead and passed a bill on a statewide microplastic strategy in 2018. The bill calls for prioritized research on understanding impacts caused by microplastics pollution and their reduction, including development of standardized methods for sampling, detecting, and characterizing microplastics.

What needs to happen

Development of a clear and reliable framework on microplastics via scientifically validated methodologies to achieve standardization is required. This, in turn, will provide the tools and robustness required to monitor microplastics and influence regulatory direction. This is not a long-term vision, either. Using robust analytical capabilities, the technology today is able to determine trace amounts of microplastics, which can be clearly and consistently defined across the globe. Given the infancy and complexity of microplastics, it is unsurprising that there is a lack of standardized scientific methodologies for sampling, analysis, and reporting of biological effects in the environment and humans. Inconsistences in measurement can result in non-comparable scientific data that make regulatory determinations difficult.

While it is easy to see the issue as insurmountable, especially considering what is at stake, steps are being taken to address some aspects of the issue—for example, funding. As public and scientific concern about plastic pollution grows, more research than ever before is being coordinated in this area; the EU funding program, Horizon 2020, allocated over €250 million to finance research and development in areas of direct relevance to microplastics. In addition to funding, biotechnology companies are developing sensitive technologies that are able to identify and characterize microplastics at minuscule amounts, making the process more robust and easier to do than ever before.

It is only with the supporting technology and scientific rigor that research efforts will be able to uncover the true extent of the impact of microplastics.

Moving toward scientific uniformity

Currently, no globally harmonized testing standards for microplastics exist. However, standard development organizations are hard at work on standards, both on a regional and international level. Examples include:

  • International Standard Organization (ISO): ISO TC 61/SC 14/WG 4
     SO Technical Committee (TC) 61 is working on standards for plastics. Under this TC, a dedicated subcommittee (SC), SC 14, was created in 2017 and deals with the environmental aspects of plastics. A dedicated working group (WG) of this SC, WG 4, is identifying standards for the characterization of plastics leaked into the environment, including microplastics.
  • ISO TC 147/SC 2
    This SC (physical, chemical, and biochemical methods) is starting work on the analysis of microplastics in drinking water and groundwater.
  • European Committee for Standardization (CEN): CEN TC 249/WG 24
    CEN TC 249, which closely collaborates with ISO TC 61 under the Vienna Agreement, is responsible for the development of standards for plastics. Working Group 24 is dealing with the environmental aspects and testing of plastics.   
  • American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM International): D19
    ASTM is an international standard development organization that develops and publishes voluntary consensus technical standards for a wide range of materials, products, systems, and services. Committee D19 is dealing with standards for water. Technical SC D19.06 works on methods of analysis for organic substances in water and is planning to work on standards for the sample collection, extraction, and analysis of microplastics in water.

As the introduction of new global regulations will affect societies, it is crucial to ensure that all regulatory decisions are supported by premium scientific evidence with the highest integrity of data. Regulatory changes will impact several stakeholders; most likely consumers, manufacturers, and retailers, among others. 

Microplastics have spurred an era of huge public, governmental, and private sector attention, but we are also in an era of cutting-edge detection and monitoring technology. These technologies can identify and quantify microplastics at greater levels of specificity and accuracy. Such scientific advancements can better our understanding on the impact of microplastics, as well as the development of much needed regulations for a safe and clean world.