In Memoriam Dick Vethaak

Image: ZonMw/Thomas Duiker

Prof. Dr. Dick Vethaak, our dear colleague, friend and co-coordinator of MOMENTUM, passed away on June 1, 2024. An international expert in the field of micro- and nanoplastics (MNP) research, Dick has made an invaluable contribution to the field and was an inspiration to all who knew him. We wish his family, colleagues, and friends much strength with this great loss.

Dick laid the foundation for microplastics and health research in the Netherlands and beyond over 15 years ago, when he started signaling the impact of plastic pollution in the marine environment. He spearheaded research at the VU Amsterdam on the analysis and effects of MNPs in aquatic species and environmental matrices, working closely with Heather Leslie and other colleagues on groundbreaking projects, such as CLEANSEA. In this period, he was one of the first to proclaim that it was not a far reach to expect that MNPs would also end up in humans and affect human health. As described so beautifully in a recent heartwarming interview with Dick in the ZonMw magazine Impuls, already back in 2016, Dick and Heather published the article Plastic Debris Is a Human Health Issue in which they address concerns about MNP toxicity and human health and plastic particles as carriers of pathogens.

ZonMw picked up on Dick’s message, and asked Dick to advise in the design of the Microplastics and Health research grant programme, including the world premiere of the 15 breakthrough projects in MNPs and human health. Dick’s advice to take an interdisciplinary approach involving ecologists, environmentalists, toxicologists, medics, epidemiologists, and materials scientists, led to the connection of these disciplines, building what is now a solid research field. Dick also had major input into the ZonMw knowledge agenda ‘What are microplastics doing in our bodies?’, and together with the ZonMw team, led by Frank Pierik, looked for new collaborations with other funders, policy makers and societal parties. His appearances at the Plastic Health Summit in 2019 and 2021 solidified his reputation as an outstanding scientist, a warm and caring person, and a charismatic speaker.

“Dick had a great passion to achieve a healthy living environment for all that lives. A passion that touched me and many others. With his selfless commitment, Dick built a strong  interdisciplinary research community, inspired to continue his work on micro- and nanoplastics. Dick will be remembered as the microplastics pioneer, and for the great person he was. Dick was invaluable for the ZonMw Microplastics & Health programme since its start. We will miss him for so many reasons.”
Frank Pierik, ZonMw

The history of the MOMENTUM project started in 2020, when Dick and Juliette Legler were asked by ZonMw and Health~Holland to lead a public-private partnership consortium that brought the 15 breakthrough projects together, and addressed the major research gaps while already seeking solutions together with private sector partners. Dick took the lead in  writing a short review for the journal Science together with Juliette, which integrated the results of the projects while highlighting all the research gaps. Dick greeted the challenge of developing the MOMENTUM consortium with enthusiasm, first interviewing all the coordinators of the breakthrough projects, and then brainstorming the structure on an intensive and hot day in Bilthoven in June, 2020. Dick was so proud when MOMENTUM kicked off with an online meeting on June 3-4, 2021.

Throughout the first MOMENTUM project and the additional MoreMOMENTUM project, Dick was an advisor and sparring partner for Juliette, and a constant source of inspiration to all the MOMENTUM partners. He did his best to attend all MOMENTUM meetings in person, despite surmounting health problems, travelling from Spain and taking the time to talk to all the partners and members of the User Group Committee. He was friendly and interested in speaking with people of all ages and from every background. He was also the first ‘go to’ for journalists, and he tirelessly answered almost all requests to be interviewed. We were so proud to see him represent the ZonMw programme and MOMENTUM in all these media appearances. An overview of his many media appearances can be found on the MOMENTUM website under ‘News and events’.

“In losing Dick, the MOMENTUM project has lost a piece of its soul, and I personally have lost a dear friend and inspirational mentor. I know we will keep Dick in our hearts and in our minds as we keep pushing the science forward with our goal to reduce the health impacts of microplastics.”
Juliette Legler, Utrecht University

It was wonderful that Dick could be part of the kick-off meeting of MOMENTUM 2.0 in December 2023, as well as the kick-off meeting of the 7 new breakthrough projects in February 2024. As Dick stated in the short video made during that meeting, our project will be a success if we can perform a risk assessment of MNPs for the first time, which is the main goal of MOMENTUM 2.0. Dick will continue to be an inspiration for all our work going forward, and for the next generation. It is with great gratitude that we will continue to remember Dick. Someone so special will never be forgotten. Our thoughts are with his family, friends, and colleagues.