Race against time to unravel health effects of microplastics

The Washington Post published an article this week discussing the current progress and challenges in microplastics research. Back in 2015, it was well-known that microplastics existed in the oceans and had embedded themselves in fish and seafood. But then, scientists also discovered microplastics floating around in the air. This inspired MOMENTUM’s Dick Vethaak and his group to start looking for microplastics in the human body. “The results were quite shocking”, Vethaak says in the article.

Health effects of microplastics

Microplastics have now been identified in many tissues of the human body, including the placenta, blood, liver, heart, and bowels. Researchers have also begun to find evidence for the risks that microplastics pose to human health. For example by showing that plastic particles trigger cell death, tissue damage, and allergic reactions. Microplastics were also found to increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, or death in cardiovascular patients. Nevertheless, scientists still don’t have a clear sense of what microplastics are doing to the human body.


Many factors complicate microplastics research. First, there is the large number of different types of microplastics out there. Scientists not only need to be able to identify these, but they also need to determine how many particles there are and how long they stay in the body. Next is the staggering number of chemicals that microplastics carry with them. These chemicals may be released inside the body, resulting in additional potential health risks that are yet to be revealed. So, scientists are currently facing a huge challenge. They need to link all these types of microplastics and chemicals to many different health outcomes, the article explains. A challenge that participants in the MOMENTUM consortium are also working hard to tackle.

Action needed

Microplastics researchers are in a race against time. Scientists call upon governments and regulatory bodies to act, for example by limiting the number of chemicals added to food packaging. One researcher from Penn State University thinks that we now have enough data to start taking precautionary action. “We need to act before we have all the answers”.