How may microbes on the surface of plastics influence human health?

In which ways can microbes on the surface of plastics affect human health? And which pieces of the puzzle need to be solved in order to include the potential microbial risks of micro- and nanoplastics in risk assessment strategies? Researchers from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) working in the MOMENTUM consortium have published a perspective paper on this topic in the journal Frontiers in Nanotechnology on March 18, 2024.

Micro- and nanoplastics (MNPs) can carry microbial communities on their surface. These microbial communities may contain pathogenic microbes such as viruses, or bacteria that carry antibiotic resistance genes. Considering that micro- and nanoplastics in aquatic environments are ideal foundations for the long-distance transport of biofilms, they may expose people to resistant microbes, for example, while swimming, hereby posing a human health threat. In their paper Melissa Stunnenberg and Ana Maria de Roda Husman describe in which ways microbes on the surface of plastics may affect human health.

Microbes and microplastics: a dynamic interplay

Scientific literature has shown that the associated microbial communities present on the surface of micro- and nanoplastics differ from those found in water or on the surfaces of organic materials such as stones, sand particles or wood. Furthermore, MNPs that have a different physical appearance or chemical composition harbor different microbial communities, making risk assessment multifaceted. “It is very complex to determine which plastic particle aspect determines its microbial composition, and that changes continuously”, Stunnenberg explains. “We try to understand which factors play a role in this dynamic interplay, and how these factors interact. This knowledge helps us assess the risks of micro- and nanoplastics to human health.”