Microplastics may harm human health

Microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Photo: Chesapeake Bay Program via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
Microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Photo: Chesapeake Bay Program via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
‘Serious questions’ raised over plastic and immune health.


Microplastics may harm human health, researchers at the University Medical Centre (UMC) Utrecht have claimed today.

Research presented at the Plastic Health Summit in Amsterdam will reveal immune cells that recognise and attack microplastics will die quickly as a result of the contact.

Experiments showed immune cells that encounter microplastics under laboratory conditions die around three times more quickly than those that don’t.

Cell death

Some forms of accelerated cell death or damage can prompt an inflammatory response in the body.

The study was led by Nienke Vrisekoop - Assistant Professor at the UMC Utrecht Center for Quantitative Immunology.

Microplastics coated in blood plasma were placed in culture dishes alongside human immune cells under laboratory conditions.

Some 20 percent of immune cells tested in culture dishes without microplastics died within 24 hours.

When immune cells came into contact with microplastics 60 percent of the cells died within the same time period.

Growing evidence 

This rate of cell death is thought to be far in excess of when immune cells encounter and engulf most bacteria or foreign bodies.

A growing body of evidence is pointing to the presence of microplastics in humans. Last year researchers at the Medical University of Vienna found 20 microplastic particles in every 10 grams of stool.

The Plastic Health Summit in Amsterdam is set to see respected health experts from around the world debate the latest state-of-the-art research on micro- and nanoplastics, plastic additives, and health.

The summit represents the first time the world’s top scientists have got together to explore new and existing research on the impact of plastic and health.

At the summit Liz Bonnin will be receiving the results of a urine test revealing the levels of potentially harmful plastic-related chemicals in her body.

Urgent research 

Organised by the Plastic Soup Foundation and supported by environmental campaign group A Plastic Planet, the summit will see vital new evidence presented exploring the link between plastic and ill-health.

Assistant Professor Nienke Vrisekoop said: “These results raise serious questions about what microplastics are doing to our immune health.

“Urgent further research is needed to paint as full a picture as possible.”

A Plastic Planet co-founder Sian Sutherland said: “Anyone who cares about their health or the health of their children will be profoundly worried about today’s findings.

“With plastic production set to quadruple in the next decades, we need to ask ourselves – is this risk worth it for the sake of convenience in our throwaway lifestyle or is this finally the proof needed to turn off the plastic tap?

“The Plastic Health Summit is a vital catalyst for us to finally understand the true cost of plastic on human health.”


Maria Westerbos, founder and director of the Plastic Soup Foundation, said: “With this Summit, we want to prove once and for all that plastic doesn’t just harm nature and animals, but also ourselves.

"If we want to give our children and their children a fair chance, then all this proof is enough to turn the tide.”

David Azoulay, Environmental Health Program Director at the Center for International Environmental Law said: "The demonstrated impacts along the life cycle of plastic paint an unequivocally toxic picture: plastic threatens human health on a global scale.

"It's high time businesses across the world took responsibility for the plastic they produce."

This Article 

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist. This article is based on a press release from the Plastic Health Summit.

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