The World Health Organisation (WHO) has today (22 August) called for a further assessment of microplastics in the environment and their potential impacts on human health, following the release of an analysis of current research related to microplastics in drinking water.
WHO is also calling for a reduction in plastic pollution to benefit the environment and reduce human exposure.
‘We urgently 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.’
DR MARIA NEIRA
Director, Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health at WHO
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 are extremely limited.
According to WHO, 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.
‘This WHO report clearly acknowledges the major gaps in research around the human health risks posed by microplastics, so we cannot assume the risks are low. This is a research gap that must be filled.
‘In the meantime, what we do know is that plastic is harming our marine wildlife and the fossil fuels needed to make plastics are contributing to our climate emergency.
‘With that in mind, governments and businesses must – as the WHO recommends – urgently reduce plastic production.’
Head of Greenpeace UK’s ocean plastics campaign
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.
Wastewater treatment can remove more than 90% 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, WHO states that communities can simultaneously address the concern related to microplastics.
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