Microplastics: risks to the environment and health

Microplastics range in size from 5 millimetres down to a few hundred nanometres, making them 70 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. Microplastics are ubiquitous in the environment: they are found in air, in homes, in rivers, on land and in oceans. All living species, from the smallest (e.g. zooplankton) to the largest (e.g. whales), can ingest them.

­­Plastics in the environment: release of additives and bacteria

It is currently estimated that 10% of all of the plastics produced since their invention have ended up in the ocean. Plastics can float on the surface, be found at a range of depths or even settle on the ocean floor. At present, the plastics most commonly found in the environment are polyethylene (a component of now-banned single-use bags, for example), polypropylene (a component of plastic food boxes) and polystyrene (often used as protective packaging).

Plastics are made not only of polymers, but also of a mixture of various additives that give the plastic its properties: flexibility, rigidity, fire resistance, etc. These additives are potential chemical contaminants. Moreover, the bacteria that adhere to the surface of plastics can be biological contaminants.

ANSES’s work on microplastics

Given their extensive presence in rivers, seas and oceans and their impact on aquatic fauna and flora, fishery products and drinking water, microplastics are research topics of the utmost importance.

ANSES therefore undertakes research to assess the quantity and nature of plastic particles found in certain foods as well as the level of exposure and the risk to human health. The Agency also works with scientists from other countries to harmonise methods, i.e. agree on common protocols for comparing the findings obtained in various countries.

In addition, it analyses the additives contained in plastics to estimate consumer exposure levels.

Moreover, by providing its expertise, the Agency contributes to informing public debate through its participation in hearings and working groups (AFNOR, Ministry of Ecological and Inclusive Transition) and also through the provision of more general summary reports (for the WHO in particular).

ANSES is participating in various research projects on this theme:

  • Nanoplastics, an ANR research project dedicated to improving means (tools and methods) for identifying the smallest microplastics found in seafood products. ANSES is also seeking to determine whether microplastics can release certain additives specific to their composition into food.
  • FISHH, a Franco-Dutch project undertaken jointly with RIVM and NIOZ, whose goal is to assess the impact of microplastics on human immune cells.
  • CPER Marco: the Boulogne-sur-Mer site of the Laboratory for Food Safety is taking part in this regional project, during which several teams have undertaken collaborative work and set out to create a platform dedicated exclusively to the analysis of microplastics.

Recently, ANSES participated in the "Polymers and Oceans” Research Group", bringing together the French-speaking community working on the fate of plastics in aquatic environments with the goal of promoting the emergence of new interdisciplinary research.