Utrecht University (UU), one of AURORA’s partner institutions, recently published an overview article investigating our society’s use of disposable plastic packaging and the resulting creation of microplastics filling up the world’s oceans. To put the scale into perspective, the article explains that researchers have been successfully able to map just 1% of the plastic waste that has been released into the oceans, but the remaining 99% is missing thanks to its breakdown into micro- and nanoplastics (MNPs). Due to their small size, these plastic particles are very difficult to detect and trace.
While analytical detection methods are now working well to count and characterize many MNPs in water samples, measurements in biological matrices such as tissue and blood are a challenging next step. “Both nanoplastics and human samples like tissue or blood are organic materials that mainly consist of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. For such small particles as nanoplastics, that makes it hard to distinguish between the two,” explains Florian Meirer, a researcher at UU who is also working within AURORA. “We’re currently working on ways to pre-digest samples to be able to detect nanoplastics in blood. This will help to identify plastic in, for example, organ tissue from the cetaceans [researcher] Lonneke IJsseldijk is working with, as well as to detect plastics in human tissue and to assess the toxicological effects in the lab.”
Research on the toxic effects of these MNPs is also ongoing. “As particles, they can elicit a stress response in cells. The plastics can also leak chemical additives into the body. Or the plastics can be a vector for transporting bacteria and micro-organisms”, says Juliette Legler, another AURORA project researcher from UU. “We have the first indications that microplastics are absorbed by the human body, but we hardly know their effects on our health.” This includes recent research provides a strong indication that MNPs can enter the placenta and expose unborn babies. “We’ve now demonstrated that microplastics appear in specific parts of the body. And we already observe that microplastics alter gene expression and cell metabolism. But we need more [knowledge],” Legler explains.
The article goes on to discuss the complexity of the global plastic manufacturing, use, and waste management supply chains and consider how society can respond to the rapid increase in micro- and nanoplastic pollution in the oceans. Better legislation on plastics is seen as a key tool, including concepts such as extended producer responsibility and circular design requirements.
Utrecht University (May 2021). “Where has all the plastic gone?”
Photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program.