Long read by John Vidal:We eat and breathe plastic. How does it affect our health?
Investigating the relationship between plastic pollution and human health.
Microplastic particles get into our bodies via the air we breathe, the water we drink, the clothes we wear and the food we eat, but we don’t know how serious this may be for our health. Common Seas is currently in an initial phase of world-first research to understand if plastics are present in our bloodstreams and body tissue. If this is confirmed, we will plan our second phase of research to understand the actual human health implications of these findings.
“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.” Dick Vethaak
Professor Water Quality and Health, Ecotoxicology
Plastic pollution has been found from the Arctic to the Equator. Vast amounts are accumulating in oceans, rivers, cities and beaches. Plastic does not degrade but breaks down into small particles or microplastics which are found in water, soils and sediments, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. Plastic particles enter the human body, and have the potential to build up in our tissues or be absorbed into the bloodstream. Plastic microparticles can concentrate heavy metals and pollutants including pesticides, as well as chemicals called dioxins which are known to cause cancer and reproductive and developmental problems.
There is a growing concern that plastic pollution is changing the very chemistry of life, but little is known about the short or long-term impacts on human health, or the level of risk posed compared to other pollutants.
The question for us is, is there a link between plastics in our bodies and chronic inflammatory disease?
Governments, businesses and citizens worldwide are becoming more alert and active to the dangers of plastic pollution, yet effective and timely solutions are elusive and plastic production is forecast to quadruple by 2050. It is clear that urgent action is needed to respond to the scale and complexity of this issue. The question for us is, is there a link between plastics in our bodies and chronic inflammatory disease?
We have started with an investigation phase, kicked off in 2018 by convening 32 experts from academic institutions, medical doctors, lawyers, environmental organisations and advocacy groups who reached a consensus that plastic pollution is a human health risk and identified urgent research needs.
Three priorities emerged:
Following this, we commissioned research in partnership with Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam to understand if plastic is in our blood and tissue. We will share findings and try to accelerate a new wave of public support and political action to end plastic pollution. More research is imperative to build a robust case on the health implications of the plastic particles we are exposed to.
Driven by the establishment of evidence that shows whether plastic is present in human blood, tissue and breast milk.
This new approach to addressing plastic pollution helps governments understand plastic waste flows and optimise policies to effectively ‘drawdown’ the flow of ocean plastic pollution.
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.