Long read by John Vidal:We eat and breathe plastic. How does it affect our health?
We have a right to know what plastic is doing to our bodies.
Healthy Me, Healthy Sea conducts world-first, world-changing investigations into how plastic affects human health.
By identifying, investigating and then communicating the health risks of plastics, we can drive a rapid change in how we make, use and dispose of them.
Plastic is everywhere - including our bodies
It’s in the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat and the clothes we wear. We know it’s inside us, but we don’t know what this means for our health.
Research into this issue is chronically underfunded. However, the evidence we do have suggests we should be concerned. Studies have already shown that when plastic gets into our body, it can cause an inflammatory response, cross into placentas and accumulate in our organs.
We believe science can influence profound change, which is why we have two investigations into the health impacts of plastic.
Is there plastic in our blood?
We know plastic is getting into our bodies through our food, air and water. But what happens next? Can microplastics cross from our lungs and our gut into our bodies?
We're conducting a world-first investigation into the presence of plastic in our blood. We want to know which polymers are there and in what quantities. We want to know how they get there and who’s most at risk; if they’re making us sick, and in what ways. We want to know whether there’s a threshold to how much plastic our bodies can take.
We started this investigation by convening 32 experts – academics, medical doctors, lawyers, environmental organisations and advocacy groups. We needed to find out if this research was worth doing.
Having reviewed the existing science, the group quickly reached a consensus that plastic pollution is a human health risk and identified three urgent research needs.
With our initial research priorities clearly defined, we identified Vrije University in Amsterdam as the leading experts in this field. Together, we created a methodology to find out, for the first time ever, whether there’s plastic in our blood, how much of it there is, and which polymers are present.
With the methodology validated, we are now testing 30 blood samples from a representative range of volunteers. Once our team of scientists are confident in their results, they will publish the findings of their work in a peer-reviewed journal.
Although we are yet to announce the final results of our research, we have identified the key questions we need to answer in the next phase of research:
*#3 is our priority
Does plastic pollution contribute to the spread of disease?
New science suggests certain pathogens can hitchhike on plastic particles in the water.
This raises significant concerns about the spread of infectious diseases – both locally via rivers and streams, and globally via ocean currents. We need to find out more about the relationship between plastic waste and the transmission of human diseases.
As part of Clean Blue Alliance, we are already working with communities in East Java to design out diaper waste.
Now, we are working with scientists in Indonesia to collect samples from the Brantas River. Our team is analysing diaper waste, as well as other plastic and non-plastic waste, for the presence of human pathogens and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Together with medical professionals and communities, we want to develop a powerful new narrative about how plastic pollution is affecting the health of the world’s most vulnerable communities.
“Microplastics spread easily via water and wind, resulting in a worldwide problem! We are constantly exposed to small plastic particles via our food, drink or through breathing. What this means for our health, however, cannot yet be properly assessed or estimated. There are strong indications of possible health risks, but there are also many uncertainties and knowledge gaps.”
Professor Water Quality and Heath, Ecotoxicology
A toolkit to help governments understand their country’s plastic waste flows and take effective mitigation action
Our vision is a global network of plastic waste-free islands. We are working with governments, councils, businesses and local changemakers to identify and accelerate solutions.
We’re helping Paros become the first single-use plastic waste-free island in the Mediterranean. By delivering a success story here, we are showcasing a methodology that could work anywhere.
Supported by evidence from our Plastic Drawdown programme, the President of the Maldives announced a total phase-out of single-use plastics by 2023. We provide technical assistance and demonstrate the impact of policy to support this ambitious strategy.
Together with our partners, we are cleaning up the Brantas River, transforming it into a source of healthy drinking water for the millions of people living along its banks. The Brantas is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. About 50% of the plastic waste currently in and entering the Brantas is single-use diapers. Our local team is therefore initially focusing on stopping the flow of single-use diapers into the river in a way that brings widespread and long-lasting social and economic benefits to the region.