Research into microplastics and nanoplastics and chemical substances
Utrecht researchers are involved in four major European Horizon 2020 projects that are all connected with research into substances that are harmful to our health. A brief impression of the projects is provided below.
Risks of microplastics and nanoplastics during pregnancy and early life
Roel Vermeulen (AURORA project coordinator)
Plastic in the environment sooner or later falls apart into ever smaller particles known as microplastics and nanoplastics. Although scientists can detect them everywhere in the environment these days, little is currently known about their effects on human health. Together with fellow scientists and four sister projects, Roel Vermeulen (working at Utrecht University and Julius Center) will be developing a strategy for assessing the health risks. Vermeulen: ‘We will be focusing mainly on exposure and health effects during pregnancy, in the womb and in early life.’
Substances in the placenta
The researchers will focus on (unborn) children, as this phase of life is crucial for development and health at a later age. In addition, unborn and young children are more vulnerable to environmental pollution. ‘I am convinced that we can make an important contribution to the question as to whether plastic particles are harmful to the developing child’, says Vermeulen. ‘Researchers at AURORA were the first to demonstrate that small particles can reach the foetal side of the placenta, and recent research by Juliette Legler shows that this may also apply to microplastics and nanoplastics.’ The scientists will measure exposure to microplastics and nanoplastics in tissues that are relevant to early life development such as the placenta, umbilical cord blood, amniotic fluid, meconium (first stool) and foetal tissue. ‘The measurement techniques that we use to measure the chemical fingerprints of plastic particles in tissues are unique and were developed within the Gravitation programme Exposome-NL.’
What risk do microplastics and nanoplastics pose to our defences?
Raymond Pieters (POLYRISK project coordinator)
Our environment is full of microplastics and nanoplastics and there is a strong chance that these particles will enter our body via inhalation or food. Do these particles pose a risk to our health, in particular to our natural defences? A consortium of researchers at fourteen European partners from seven countries will be joining forces to investigate. The project is coordinated by Raymond Pieters from Utrecht University, together with Heather Leslie from VU Amsterdam. Florian Meirer (UU) and Nienke Vrisekoop (UMCU) are also involved.
From textile companies to football pitches
‘We will be examining these particles at different levels’, says Pieters. ‘We will start at a chemical-analytical level, i.e. whether we can demonstrate the presence of these particles, especially in humans. We will also carry out toxicological research to find out how dangerous the particles are, in particular to the immune system. Finally, we will conduct epidemiological research into the effects in humans in various situations: from textile companies to football pitches with artificial grass.’
In four or five years’ time, Pieters expects the consortium to have developed a solid methodology that indeed makes it possible to determine the exposure, dangers and risks of these minute plastic particles to health. ‘We want to contribute to a less polluted world (in terms of plastics) and hope that our results will also help to raise the awareness of industry, the population and government.’
Risk assessment of chemical substances without animal testing
Roel Vermeulen (participant in the RISK-HUNT3R project)
The aim of RISK-HUNT3R is to better protect the population against health effects caused by (chronic) exposure to chemicals. To this end, scientists are developing a reliable, efficient and cost-effective approach to assess the safety of chemical substances. The researchers are doing so without the use of laboratory animals. The main innovation of RISK-HUNT3R is a full human-centric risk assessment strategy. Vermeulen: ‘Recently, in the journal Science, we called for a drastic innovation of the risk assessment of chemicals both pre- and post-marketing. We need to improve methods and achieve better integration between exposures and health effects in the experimental world and the real world.’ Among other things, the scientists are doing this by establishing a link with exposome research. This involves measuring thousands of chemicals in large groups of people and studying which changes occur in the biological system.
Collaboration with industry and regulators
The researchers are collaborating with all key industry stakeholders and international regulatory authorities to critically evaluate and ultimately accept the new framework for safety testing. They are therefore ensuring a ready-made strategy for protection against hazardous chemicals, fully in line with the European Commission's Green Deal.
Replacing animal testing with more efficient toxicity testing
Nynke Kramer (ONTOX coordinator)
A daily dose of a chemical substance can lead to problems such as liver damage, brain damage or kidney damage in humans. Laboratory animals are often used to determine the amount of a substance that is harmful to humans. However, it is extremely debatable whether the dose in animals can be translated directly to humans. In order to eliminate this uncertainty, a consortium of researchers from Utrecht University (IRAS) and seventeen other research groups in Europe will develop a series of toxicity tests using human liver, kidney and brain cells to replace animal testing.
Toxic concentrations for the human body
'Using computer models that simulate the movement of toxins through the human body, we wish to translate toxic concentrations of substances in cell cultures into a daily dose that humans must take in order to incur liver, kidney or brain damage', says Nynke Kramer, who coordinates the research activities at IRAS. The Horizon 2020 ONTOX project received a grant of 18 million euros from the European Union for this purpose.