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Plastic not-so-fantastic – Micro and nanoplastics in the food chain


Plastic pollution has caused a lot of concern and gained a lot of publicity in recent years.

Measures have been put in place in many parts of the world to reduce the use of plastic and its effects on the environment.  This has included:

  • Restrictions on the use of plastic bags
  • A UK and EU ban on microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products
  • A ban on a range of single-use plastic items, which came into force on 1 October 2023

The presence of microplastics and nanoplastics is the latest high-profile concern.

What are they?

Microplastics and nanoplastics (MNPs) are very small pieces of plastic.  The difference between the two is in their respective sizes.  Microplastics are pieces of plastic which are smaller than 0.5mm in diameter, and nanoplastics are much smaller still, at 100 nanometres or less.

It has been discovered that MNPs are everywhere.  They have been found widely in soils on farmland, and have even been found in marine animals in the deepest ocean trenches.

MNPs in the food chain

MNPs have been found in fruit and vegetables, which absorb them from the soil and water through tiny cracks in their roots as they grow.  According to one study, of the fruit and veg sampled, apples were the fruit most contaminated, and carrots the most contaminated vegetable.

MNPs have also been found extensively in drinking water, including bottled, spring and tap water.

Against that background, it is perhaps unsurprising that MNPs have entered the human food chain.  This is not just direct from contaminated crops and water, but also from livestock consuming them in their natural environment, contamination during the food manufacturing process, and from leaching from packaging. 

MNPs have been detected in all sorts of food and drink products, including fish and shellfish, beer, honey, milk, and even sugar and salt.

One study estimates that the average human consumes between 39,000–52,000 MNPs particles per year.

Risk to human health

The BBC has reported research showing that MNPs can stunt the growth of earthworms.  The reasons for this are not yet entirely understood but might be that MNPs obstruct the worms’ digestive tracts and limit their ability to absorb nutrients.

The effect of MNPs on human health is as yet largely unknown.  A World Health Organisation report in 2019 on microplastics in drinking water suggested that there was not yet any proof of harm to human health, but called for more research to be done on this.

A 2020 article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggested that the effects of MNPs on human cells and tissues remained rather unclear and that the effect of the persistent presence of MNPs in the human gut was as yet unknown.

A paper from 2021 reported in the journal Nanomaterials on the impact of MNPs on human health suggested that several studies have shown that MNPs were able to cause serious impacts on the human body, including:

  • Physical stress and damage
  • Apoptosis (cell death)
  • Necrosis (tissue death)
  • Inflammation
  • Oxidative stress affecting immune response

The future

If evidence continues to grow that MNPs can cause significant harm to human health, it might be thought that this is likely to lead to claims for compensation against those responsible for the presence of MNPs in the food chain, including food producers and packagers.

Any claimant, though, is likely to find it extremely difficult to sustain such a claim.  There remains relatively little research into the impact of MNPs on human health, and claimants will face difficulties proving that MNPs were the cause of any alleged harm sustained.  Claimants will also have to identify the source of any MNPs they may have ingested, and that this was the cause of their alleged harm, rather than, for example, exposure to MNPs from other sources, such as other foods, drinking water, inhalation, or even skin contact.

It is widely acknowledged that more scientific research needs to be done into the presence and source of MNPs, and their impact on the environment and human health, and as scientific knowledge and understanding increases, the claims landscape could change.

In the short to medium term, food and drink producers and packaging manufacturers, are likely to face increasing regulation of the use of plastics, and the presence of MNPs in the food chain. 

Producers might do well to pre-empt regulation and start thinking now about ways of minimising the risks of MNPs entering their products.

Michael Harvey

Michael Harvey


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