Micro- and nanoplastics are all around us, in the water, in the air, but also in our food and even in our blood. We know these plastic particles can harm the environment, but we lack knowledge about their effect on our health. ZonMw funds research to fill this gap in our knowledge.

Microplastics and health

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. The impact of microplastics on human health is still largely unknown, whereas the quantity of these plastics in our living environment continues to grow.

Studies with a small budget and important outcomes

In 2018, 15 one-year breakthrough projects were funded. These projects have provided insight into the effect of micro- and nanoplastics on cells and tissues. As part of the projects, it was also investigated whether particles can penetrate our body and cause chemical toxicity or transport harmful microorganisms. These projects reveal that small plastic particles can pass through the intestinal wall, lungs, placenta and even the blood-brain barrier. They also appear to disrupt the functioning of these different body cells. Sometimes, inflammatory responses occurred as well. Read this interesting example about microplastics in the placenta. In the Microplastics and Human Health Consortium ‘MOMENTUM’, this groundbreaking research is continued by 14 of the 15 breakthrough projects. Below you can read more about the groundbreaking results of the breakthrough projects.

How do microplastics enter the body?

Various types of micro- and nanoplastics exist: small plastic particles that range in size from nanometres to micrometres. These occur when plastic breaks down or fragments into different forms, sizes and compositions. 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?

In the programme Microplastics & Health, we fund research projects that focus on obtaining insight into the possible interaction and effects of microplastics. Follow-up research is desirable because the impact of micro- and nanoplastics on human health is still largely unknown. Read our Knowledge Agenda for an overview of the most important knowledge gaps.

View the microplastics infographic

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 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 daily 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.

Collaboration: Health effects of microplastics in humans

The 15 projects about the health effects of microplastics for humans have been completed and demonstrated that microplastics from the environment can enter our body and can influence our immune system, for example. These 15 projects have been continued in the public-private consortium MOMENTUM, which aims to describe and minimise the health effects of microplastics on humans.

National research organisations and international industrial parties are working together In this consortium. The programme committee of the programme Microplastics & Health is made up of international experts as well.