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Trail blazing microplastics project examines the impact on our health

Every day we consume food and water contaminated with microplastics – tiny pieces of plastic debris resulting from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste.

What is this doing to our bodies?

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Queen Mary University of London is partnering with the Water Research Centre (WRc) on a pioneering new knowledge transfer research project to examine the impact of microplastics on human health. 

The 24-month Knowledge Transfer Partnership project is funded jointly by WRc and Innovate UK. It will be a crucial forerunner to the regulatory powers needed to tackle plastic’s presence in our food and drinking water.

Dr Vahitha Abdul Salam, the lead researcher from William Harvey Research Institute, Queen Mary University of London, comments: 

“In partnership with WRc, the project offers an exciting opportunity to transfer knowledge and relevant skills to develop a comprehensive microplastic risk assessment tool that will deliver far-reaching impacts in identifying microplastic effect on human health, supporting water quality controls and guiding plastic and recycling manufacturers to safeguarding public health.”

Dr Nabil Hajji, Technical Director of Toxicology at the Water Research Centre (WRc) comments:

“The fact that microplastics are present in seafood and our marine environment is well-documented, along with the toxicity concerns associated with this. However, the deeper understanding of the potential risks that this material presents to human health has been lacking.

“The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the EU Commission have emphasised these knowledge gaps and urged the scientific community to investigate this further. Understanding how the toxicity of microplastics impacts on our health is the first step to putting regulatory measures in place to protect people from any risks we identify.”

The need to understand the impact of microplastics and establish a new and accurate risk assessment to empower and influence regulatory powers is both essential and time sensitive.

Dr Nabil Hajji comments:

“Plastic pollution is expected to more than double by 2030 with some 40% of plastic recognised as a single use material remaining persistent in the environment. In addition, as it is degraded over time, it creates microplastics (less than 5mm) and nanoplastics (less than 0.1mm) – this is the substance being ingested by animals and people.”

There are several thousand chemicals associated with plastic, including distinct additives, plasticisers, pigments, antimicrobial agents, heat stabilisers, UV stabilisers, fillers, and flame retardants.

Dr Nabil Hajji comments:

“Until we develop a risk assessment, we lack the sound scientific knowledge to empower our regulators. The UK Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products, and the Environment (COT) has also echoed this concern. It recommends research prioritises a risk assessment for microplastics by establishing standardised methods for the quantification of different microplastics in various food sources (including water), and gathering information on absorption and accumulation, as well as profiling related toxicities.

“The risk to human health will be tested in relevant human tissue and in silico (computer) models as recommended by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. At Queen Mary University of London we will perform a nanoliter-scale (one billionth of a litre) analysis for microplastic biomarkers for toxicity.

“The combined risk assessment and toxicology testing will be the first-of-its-kind for the development of a microplastic risk assessment consulting service in the UK.  Methods developed as part of this work will be validated and recommended to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to create global standard protocols for microplastic risk assessment.”

Dr Lorna Howarth, Innovate UK KTN Senior Knowledge Transfer Adviser, comments:

“This is a trail blazing knowledge transfer project that will embed a new commercial risk assessment capability into WRc using a novel methodology and approach that has not been taken before. The outcome will have far reaching economic, environmental and societal impacts”.


Learn more about partnering with Queen Mary University of London.

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