An “urgency to this” – microplastics posing human health risks, report warns

By Carey Gillam

Growing plastic pollution not only poses a threat to wildlife and the environment, but increasingly also to human health due to pervasive microscopic plastic particles that people are ingesting through their diet, according to a research report released Monday.

These microplastics appear to be contributing to fertility problems and poor respiratory health, and to induce biological changes that can lead to cancer in the digestive track, according to the findings.

Microplastics – generally defined as particles smaller than 5 mm (5,000 microns) – result from the breakdown of larger plastic products as well as from the manufacture of miniscule plastics used in cosmetics, industrial cleaners and other products. Most first-generation plastics are made from fossil fuels.

Though there is little research on the human health impacts of microplastics, human exposure has been well documented in recent years. Microplastics have been found in stool samples of people around the world as well as in blood samples and in human lungs.

“There is an urgency to this,” said Tracey Woodruff, professor and director of the University of California San Francisco’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE), which helped lead the review of nearly 2,000 studies that formed the basis for the new report.

“The science around plastics in general is kind of in its early period,” Woodruff said. “We suspect we’re just going to continue to find more problems with these microplastics. It’s not surprising that something that is made up of chemicals that are toxic would be toxic to human health.”

The report, titled “Microplastics Occurrence, Health Effects, and Mitigation Policies: An Evidence Review for the California State Legislature,” was developed at the request of the California Senate Committee on Environmental Quality and the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources.

The work was done through the California State Policy Evidence Consortium (CalSPEC), an initiative that taps various University of California experts to produce reports on topics of concern for the state legislature.