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UEA microplastics expert welcomes WHO report

The University of East Anglia scientist that pioneered a test to detect microplastics in water has today welcomed a World Health Organisation report calling for more research into how these tiny particles affect the environment and their potential impacts on human health.

Dr Andrew Mayes, from UEA’s School of Chemistry, developed a test that was used to reveal microplastics in bottled water around the world.

The rapid screening method identifies microscopic plastic particles - as small as a few micrometres - in water and sediment samples.

The method “sees” microplastic particles, by staining them using fluorescent Nile Red dye. The dye adsorbs onto plastic surfaces, making them fluorescent when irradiated with blue light. These fluorescent particles can then be visualised and counted. This approach is simple and rapid, so large-scale studies can be carried out affordably and reasonably quickly.

The research into microplastics in bottled water generated widespread media attention and led to the WHO announcing that it would conduct a review of the potential health effects of microplastics in drinking water.  The report published today is the outcome of that reivew. As well as assessing the health risks, the report also calls for a continued global drive to reduce plastic pollution, to benefit the environment and reduce human exposure.

Commenting on the report, Dr Mayes, said: “As might be expected from a WHO-commissioned report, this is a pretty comprehensive synthesis of all the currently-available scientific evidence. 

“The report is well balanced and seeks to assess the risks in an overall context relative to other likely risk factors. By drawing together all the available and often disparate evidence, the working group has added considerable value to the literature through thoughtful and detailed analysis.

“The key finding, that microplastics in drinking water pose a low risk to human health, based on current available evidence, will no doubt come as a relief to worried members of the public, who may have been alarmed following widespread media attention to scientific reports of microplastics in mains water and bottled water over the last couple of years.

“The recommendation that routine monitoring of microplastics in drinking water is NOT necessary at present will also be a huge relief to the UK water industry, since it will no doubt reduce pressure on the water regulator to act in this way. It is also sensible, since it would place a huge financial burden on the industry and would be premature, since there are no cost-effective and validated methods that could be used for this purpose currently.

“The report does highlight the lack of detailed understanding of the fate and behavior of microplastics in water and wastewater treatment processes, however, so while routine monitoring is NOT recommended, further research certainly is - especially in relation to the transfer of microplastics, particularly microfibers from washing clothes, through the wastewater treatment process and back onto agricultural land through use of solid wastes as fertilizer.

“The report also emphasizes that, while risks to health of microplastics through ingestion in water may be low, there is a continuing need to reduce plastic inputs into the environment at source, in order to prevent the problem becoming worse. 

“This can be enacted through better waste management and implementation of incentive schemes and governments should prioritise such actions in the overall global strategy to reduce plastic inputs into oceans - the ultimate sink for all of the waste.

“As a researcher focused on developing new analytical methods for studying microplastics, I am naturally gratified that the report highlights development of improved and standardized methods for microplastic analysis at the top of its list of knowledge gaps and research needs. 

“Lack of rapid, cost effective and reliable methods for detecting and analyzing microplastics is a key bottleneck in much of the required research effort to understand the sources, distribution, behavior and fate of microplastics, both in environmental and medical contexts. 

“Hopefully, highlighting this issue in such a prominent way in the report will encourage the research community and funding agencies to address this gap in an urgent and concerted way,” he added.

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