ZURICH (BLOOMBERG) - Tiny pieces of plastic from discarded bottles, bags and lotions permeate water around the world, and more study is needed to determine whether they pose human health risks, global health officials said.
Plastic fragments the size of a sesame seed and smaller have proliferated over the past few decades amid rising production of the material that threatens to skyrocket over the next 40 years, according to a report from the World Health Organisation.
While they don't appear to be a danger to humans at current levels, "we urgently need to know more about the health impact of microplastics because they are everywhere, including in our drinking water", said Ms Maria Neira, director of the WHO's Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health.
Microplastics may arise from the erosion of larger plastic debris, which poses its own risks to marine life, or come in the form of tiny beads found in health and beauty products, like exfoliating creams or toothpaste. Studies have detected microplastics in more than 80 per cent of global freshwater sources, municipal tap water and bottled water. Food and air also contain the particles.
While data are scarce, microplastics may affect organs such as the liver and intestines as well as certain immune system cells that clear the body of foreign invaders, according to the report. Researchers need to better study how much exposure humans have to the particles and in what forms and sizes, the authors said.
Plastic production has increased by about 8.7 per cent annually since the 1960s, according to a review published last year in Current Environmental Health Reports. Runoff from agriculture, road-marking paint and tire wear as well as fibres from footwear and other clothing contain microplastics that find their way into water.
Governments around the world have already stepped up action to reduce plastic in the environment, from banning drinking straws to imposing fees on supermarket bags. The European Union has considered restricting the use of some common microplastics in make-up and cleaning products.
Suppliers and regulators should prioritise removing microbial pathogens and chemicals from drinking water, which will also help cut microplastic content, the report said. Wastewater treatment can remove more than 90 per cent of microplastics, while conventional drinking-water treatment can remove particles smaller than a micrometer.
By reducing known water contaminants, "communities can simultaneously address the concern related to microplastics", the WHO said.