WHO advocates more research on health impact of microplastics

A tap of running water used to illustrate the story [Photo: nationals.org.au]
A tap of running water used to illustrate the story [Photo: nationals.org.au]

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called for further assessment of microplastics in the environment and their potential impact on human health.

This call was made in a press statement on Thursday following the release of an analysis of current research related to microplastics in drinking water.

The organisation also called for a reduction in plastic pollution to benefit the environment and reduce human exposure.

Although the international health organisation says the level of microplastics in drinking water is not yet dangerous for humans, it still called for more research into potential future risk.

The analysis became necessary after various studies reported the presence of microplastics in treated tap and bottled water.

This has raised concerns about the impact that microplastics in drinking water might have on human health.

The Director, Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health, at WHO, Maria Neira, said there is an urgent need to “know more about the health impact of microplastics because they are everywhere – including in our drinking-water.”

“Based on the limited information we have, microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels. But we need to find out more. We also need to stop the rise in plastic pollution worldwide.”

Analysis

According to the analysis, which summarises the latest knowledge on microplastics in drinking-water, “microplastics larger than 150 micrometres are not likely to be absorbed in the human body and uptake of smaller particles is expected to be limited”.

Absorption and distribution of very small microplastic particles including in the nano-size range may, however, be higher, although the data is extremely limited.

The health agency said further research is needed “to obtain a more accurate assessment of exposure to microplastics and their potential impacts on human health.”

“These include developing standard methods for measuring microplastic particles in water; more studies on the sources and occurrence of microplastics in fresh water; and the efficacy of different treatment processes,” it said.

Other recommendations

Also, WHO recommends drinking water suppliers and regulators prioritise removing microbial pathogens and chemicals that are known risks to human health, such as those causing deadly diarrhoeal diseases.

“This has a double advantage: wastewater and drinking water treatment systems that treat faecal content and chemicals are also effective in removing microplastics.”

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The agency said wastewater treatment can remove more than 90 per cent of microplastics from wastewater, with the highest removal coming from tertiary treatment such as filtration.

“Conventional drinking-water treatment can remove particles smaller than a micrometre. A significant proportion of the global population currently does not benefit from adequate water and sewage treatment.

“By addressing the problem of human exposure to faecally contaminated water, communities can simultaneously address the concern related to microplastics,” it said.

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