The WHO calls for more research into microplastics and a crackdown on plastic pollution

27 August 2019

Article: 53/3408

On 22 August 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a call for a further assessment of microplastics in the environment and their potential impacts on human health, following the release of analysis of current research related to microplastics in drinking-water.

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

According to the analysis, 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 be higher, although the data is extremely limited.

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
  • reviewing the efficacy of different treatment processes

The WHO recommends drinking-water suppliers and regulators prioritize the removal of microbial pathogens and chemicals that are known risks to human health, such as those causing deadly diarrhoeal diseases.

Wastewater treatment can remove more than 90% of microplastics from waste water, 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.

Source: WHO, 22 August 2019