IV Socio-economic Implications of Marine Anthropogenic Litter

Microand Nano-plastics and Human Health

Abstract Plastics are highly versatile materials that have brought huge societal benefits. They can be manufactured at low cost and their lightweight and adaptable nature has a myriad of applications in all aspects of everyday life, including food packaging, consumer products, medical devices and construction. By 2050, however, it is anticipated that an extra 33 billion tonnes of plastic will be added to the planet. Given that most currently used plastic polymers are highly resistant to degradation, this influx of persistent, complex materials is a risk to human and environmental health. Continuous daily interaction with plastic items allows oral, dermal and inhalation exposure to chemical components, leading to the widespread presence in the human body of chemicals associated with plastics. Indiscriminate disposal places a huge burden on waste management systems, allowing plastic wastes to infiltrate ecosystems, with the potential to contaminate the food chain. Of particular concern has been the reported presence of microscopic plastic debris, or microplastics (debris ≤1 mm in size), in aquatic, terrestrial and marine habitats. Yet, the potential for microplastics and nanoplastics of environmental origin to cause harm to human health remains understudied. In this article, some of the most widely encountered plastics in everyday use are identified and their potential hazards listed. Different routes of exposure to human populations, both of plastic additives, microplastics and nanoplastics from food items and from discarded debris are discussed. Risks associated with plastics and additives considered to be of most concern for human health are identified. Finally, some recent developments in delivering a new generation of safer, more sustainable polymers are considered.


If a visitor from 50 years ago were to turn up today, one of the first things he would notice (other than how much heavier we all were), would be how much plastic there is everywhere. We use plastics to wrap our food, we drink from plastic containers, cook with plastic utensils, deliver drugs to patients through plastic tubing. We increasingly use plastics and polymer composites in construction. Worldwide annual production of plastics is estimated to be in the region of 300 million tonnes. Plastic demand in the European Union alone for 2010 was estimated at 46.4 million tonnes, consisting of two main types: plastics used for packaging of food and consumer items, with the second group constituting plastics used in the construction industry (PlasticsEurope 2013). With overall recycling rates at around 57.9 %, this corresponds to around 24.7 million tonnes of plastic debris entering the waste stream each year. Waste disposal includes littering, land fill and the sewerage system and ultimately, a significant proportion of plastic waste ends up in the sea. Jambeck et al. (2015) estimated that 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste entered the ocean in 2010.

Whilst these fi are alarming in terms of volume, it is not yet clear how this large scale and ubiquitous use affects human health. As an example, some 14.5 million tonnes per annum of plastic is used in the food packaging industry alone (European Plastics Converters). On the positive side, improvements in food packaging can prevent bacterial infections, such as Salmonella and other food borne disease (Hanning et al. 2009; European Commission 2014), and can prevent wastage and aid distribution. Conversely, migration of contaminants from food packaging into food is considered the main route of exposure of human populations to contaminants associated with plastics (Grob et al. 2006), with only a small fraction of the thousands of substances that may be present having been subject to extensive testing (Claudio 2012). Whilst rigorous standards are in place to regulate food-contact substances in terms of migration into food (EFSA 2011), it is less clear how these guidelines offer protection once the plastics themselves have been discarded to the environment. With only limited information available about rates of degradation and fragmentation, leaching of chemicals into environmental matrices, and entry into the food chain, it is almost impossible to estimate the cumulative risks of chronic exposure to plastics and their additives.

One way around this problem is to determine what chemicals are actually present in the human body. Human biomonitoring involves measuring the concentrations of environmental contaminants and/or their metabolites in human tissues or body fluids, such as blood, breast milk, saliva or urine. Biomonitoring is considered a gold standard in assessing the health risks of environmental exposures because it can provide an integrated measure of an individual's exposure to contaminants from multiple sources (Sexton et al. 2004). This approach has shown that chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics are certainly present in the human population. For some chemicals, their widespread presence in the general population at concentrations capable of causing harm in animal models has raised public health concerns (Talsness et al. 2009; Melzer and Galloway 2010). The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) is a program of studies designed to assess the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States and represents one of the most comprehensive human biomonitoring programs yet undertaken (cdc.gov/nchs/nhanes.htm). Of interest for this article, NHANES reports on several chemicals associated with the use or production of plastics, including bisphenol A, phthalates, styrene, acrylamide, triclosan and brominated flame retardants, and their concentrations in the general population.

This review considers the kinds of plastics in widespread, everyday use and the potential hazards they may cause. It reviews the routes of uptake of micro and nanoplastics into humans through the food chain and the potential consequences for human health. Health risks associated with microplastics and plastic-associated chemicals are discussed. Lastly, some new developments in alternative low toxicity polymers and novel nanocomposite materials are described and their potential benefits to human health discussed.

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