The amount of tiny plastic particles in our environment is increasing. Yet, we know little about the health effects of nano- and microplastics. ZonMw funds research projects investigating these effects. The aim is to reduce the health risks of microplastics.

Microplastics and health

Plastic waste pollutes the oceans, rivers, soil and air. We all know that this plastic can break down into tiny particles known as microplastics and nanoplastics. However, not everybody knows that these microplastics are also released when synthetic clothing is washed, when tyres wear down, and that they are sometimes added to paints, cosmetics and cleaning products. The impact of micro- and nanoplastics on human health is still largely unknown, while the quantities in our living environment continue to increase.

ZonMw has put research into micro- and nanoplastics on the agenda and provides funding for this as well. Knowledge about the health risks of microplastics is important to prevent their potential harm to our health. We also encourage the use of the research results by means of knowledge utilisation in professional practice, policy, research and education.

How do microplastics enter the body?

Various types of micro- and nanoplastics exist: small plastic particles that range in size from nanometres to micrometres. They differ in terms of their form, size and chemical composition. Microorganisms and chemical substances can attach to these microplastics and thereby enter our body. In the animation on our Dutch webpage, we show how plastic particles in our body enter via the air we breathe, our food and drinking water and bathing water.

What can research provide?

The Microplastics & Health programme, funds research projects that study the effects of micro- and nanoplastics on human health. The projects also explore potential solutions that might be used in policy and practice. See our Knowledge Agenda to discover the most important questions that researchers are attempting to answer. 

View the microplastics infographic

Results to date

Effect of microplastics on placenta and amniotic fluid

A research team from Utrecht University, the Dijklander Ziekenhuis, VU Amsterdam, Deltares in the Netherlands and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in America investigated the effect of microplastics on the health of the placenta, amniotic fluid and foetus. They observed a small effect on the genes responsible for hormone production and metabolism in the placenta. The research group received a ZonMw Pearl award for its groundbreaking research and multidisciplinary collaboration.

The precise effects of these microplastics are not yet known. Therefore, we are focusing on additional research to better understand the effect of micro- and nanoplastics on health from the very start of a human life.

Microplastics in the blood

In 2022, researchers from VU Amsterdam and Amsterdam UMC demonstrated for the first time that small plastic particles from the living environment are present and measurable in human blood. How lifelong exposure to microplastics affects our organs and health is not yet known.

Microplastics and lungs

A study revealed that microplastics can also negatively influence the lungs. Nanoplastics can be detected in the lungs within 24 hours after exposure. This leads to minor inflammations. Mini-lungs were simulated in another study. The result of high exposure to polyester and nylon fibres in the mini-lungs was that they grew less or recovered less well after they were damaged.

Microplastics in the brain

The blood-brain barrier is an important biological barrier that protects the brain from harmful substances. Tests on animals have shown that, despite this barrier, nanoplastics can reach the brain in as little as two hours. The researchers suspect that substances that adhere to the surface of plastic particles and are transported by them, particularly in the presence of cholesterol molecules, enhance the absorption of the nanoplastics. What effects the microplastics have in the brain has yet to be studied.

Immunological effects 

In-vitro laboratory research has shown that macrophages respond to microplastics by producing cytokines. This means that our immune system responds to microplastics. The quantity of cytokines produced depends on the type of plastic and the size of the particle. There are signs that microplastics can lead to chronic inflammation, which forms the basis of a number of common complaints, so the immunological effects require further study.

Current research

At the moment ZonMw is funding several projects studying the health effects of microplastics. The goal is to conduct a joint interim analysis of the risks of micro- and nanoplastics to human health and produce solution roadmaps by 2025. The roadmaps might provide initial suggestions as to how policy, regulations, consumers and companies can help to resolve the problem (e.g. in terms of plastic production, use and reuse, recycling). Read more on our programme page.


If you have any questions, you are able to find our contact information below.


Frank Pierik

Programme Manager
MicroplasticsHealth [at] zonmw.nl

Marije van der Kamp

Programme Secretary
MicroplasticsHealth [at] zonmw.nl