Long read by John Vidal:We eat and breathe plastic. How does it affect our health?
We need to change the way our world thinks about plastic.
Today, too many of us see plastic as something unavoidable and relatively harmless – when in fact it’s quite the opposite. Healthy Me, Healthy Sea conducts world-first, world-changing investigations to make a strong scientific case for the link between plastic use and human health risks.
Health is a powerful motivator for change, so by identifying, investigating and then communicating the health risks of plastics we can trigger an emotional response that drives change in how we make, use and dispose of them
We need to understand the relationship between plastic pollution and human health.
Why? Because plastic is everywhere. 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.
That’s because the necessary research doesn’t exist yet – it’s unpopular, expensive and time-consuming. However, the evidence we do have suggests we should be extremely concerned. For example, preliminary research shows human immune cells die at an alarming rate in the presence of micro-plastics.
Obviously, any risk to human health is concerning. But this new knowledge also presents an opportunity to create a much greater appetite for change - personally, locally, nationally and internationally. Governments, businesses and communities have come forward before to save human lives, and they will come together again.
We have two investigations underway.
Investigating the presence of plastic in human 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 convened 32 experts – academics, medical doctors, lawyers, environmental organisations and advocacy groups. They reached a consensus that plastic pollution is a human health risk and identified three urgent research needs.
With our 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.
Following the success of phase two blood sample testing, we have identified four research priorities:
*#3 is our priority
Investigating whether plastic pollution contributes 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.
We are already working with communities in East Java to design out diaper waste, as part of Clean Blue Alliance. To complement this, we are partnering 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 local medical professionals and communities, we are developing a powerful new narrative about how plastic pollution is affecting the health of the world’s poorest 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.