What happens if microplastics enter the human body? Do these accumulate and could that have harmful consequences? The public-private consortium MOMENTUM will investigate these questions in the coming years.
Even if the industry were to stop the production of new plastics now, the quantity of microplastics would continue to increase in the coming years. That is because a lot of plastic is already present in the environment, which is still in the process of decomposing into small particles.
Dick Vethaak is a toxicologist at Deltares and co-project leader of MOMENTUM: ‘There is a lot of attention for plastic waste in the environment such as bottles and packaging. However, indoors we are mainly exposed to other plastic particles from polymer paints or textile fibres.’ Plastics often contain a range of additives. For many of these additives, we hardly know how toxic these are. Small plastic particles spread easily: just like the natural fibres of cotton. ‘But plastics scarcely break down and instead decompose into increasingly smaller particles. As a result of this, they accumulate in the environment and in the food chain’, adds Dick.
Universities, institutes and companies are working together in this consortium that is funded by ZonMw, Top Sector Life Sciences & Health, TNO, government ministries and companies. The research builds further upon the 15 one-year breakthrough projects in the programme Microplastics & Health, which ZonMw funded in 2019.
For the next three years, MOMENTUM has a budget of 5.4 million euros available to organise follow-up studies. For ZonMw, participation in the consortium is a logical step; it fits within the ZonMw-wide subject ‘Healthy living environment’. This is a subject ZonMw has recently strengthened its programming efforts.
‘We have named the project MOMENTUM because it must be like a train in continuous motion’, says Juliette Legler, Professor of Toxicology at Utrecht University and also co-project leader. ‘It is a project for the long term; a movement from the breakthrough projects towards an infrastructure for first-class research and solutions for the problem of microplastics. Alongside MOMENTUM, the European Commission also currently funds two Horizon 2020 projects at Utrecht University, because this is such a big subject that we cannot tackle it with MOMENTUM alone. There is already international interest.’
It proved to be a challenge to combine the most promising results from the 15 breakthrough projects into a single new project. And to subsequently obtain contributions from the private sector and research organisations. Juliette: ‘We have realised a unique public-private partnership. This is not just a fundamental research project; we are thinking about the future and how we can get rid of the problem of microplastics. But also about applications, solutions and risk assessment.’
In January 2021, ZonMw presented the knowledge agenda ‘What do microplastics do in our body?’ to the state secretary for infrastructure and water Management, Stientje van Veldhoven. Dick was one of the contributors to that agenda: ‘The knowledge agenda constitutes a script and provides recommendations and routes along which we can work the next 10 to 15 years.’
The Netherlands is a trailblazer in research into the health effects of microplastics. Juliette has the following to say on this point: ‘As far as I know, ZonMw is the first research council in the world to have invested in human health effects. ZonMw does not just focus on drugs and therapy, but also on the prevention of disease through environmental factors. The Netherlands has therefore acquired a leading role in this respect.’
Researchers compare the smallest plastic particles with nanoparticles. It is known that these can lead to inflammatory responses and DNA damage. In addition, it seems likely that the smaller microplastics, which we are exposed to every day via the air, food and water, pass through the epithelium of the lungs and intestines and are taken up in the blood and brain. These particles can also carry bacteria and viruses with them, which they introduce into the body. Recently, it has been demonstrated that microplastics are present in the placenta of an unborn child with as yet unknown consequences.
Some people already have plastic particles in their body, for example due to the decomposition of plastic prostheses or breast implants. Over the next three years, it will become clearer at which concentrations effects occur and whether these constitute a risk. ‘I hope that in three years’ time, we can make a distinction between the harmful and harmless properties of microplastics. And that means that we will not just bring bad news but solutions as well’, according to a hopeful Juliette.
For the time being, MOMENTUM is being funded for three years. But it is already clear that follow-up research will be needed after this period too.
Dick explains: ‘It is not realistic to expect any applications during the first three years. We are mainly working with the private partners to find solutions and to put together an action plan for the next 10 or 15 years. I certainly expect that there will be a new financial injection to continue the research. We cannot burden future generations with our plastic problem. Even if we should conclude in three years’ time that the concentration of plastic particles in our bodies is relatively low, then you still need to think about the consequences several decades from now.’
Communication with the wider public will be a fixed element in MOMENTUM, says Juliette: ‘We want to make it clear what we are doing and how we do research. And that we not only work with researchers, but also with plastic producers, companies developing new techniques and civil society organisations who have an interest in the results of our research. In other words, that it is a real team effort!’
Microplastics and health is part of the ZonMw-wide subject Healthy living environment. To contribute to human health, ZonMw enables the development and application of knowledge regarding the health effects of the living environment.