What do microplastics do in our body?

More research into the effects of microplastics on health

Een plastic zakje drijft in het water

On Monday 11 January 2021, the knowledge agenda Microplastics and Health was presented to the State Secretary for Infrastructure and Water Management, Stientje van Veldhoven. This knowledge agenda describes the most important knowledge gaps and calls for more research. ZonMw, together with other research funding bodies, has made an important first step in the right direction for further solution-focussed research.

On behalf of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, ZonMw carried out a foresight study into the need for knowledge about microplastics and health. This has resulted in the knowledge agenda What do micro-plastics do in our body?. This knowledge agenda was produced in collaboration with various relevant parties: researchers, companies, policymakers, NGOs and other stakeholders.

Knowledge agenda’s recommendations

The Netherlands is one of the first countries in the world to have funded research into the health effects of microplastics. This is a good first step, but further research is desperately needed. The knowledge agenda clearly recommends further research. Fundamental research remains important and must also be expanded with research into exposure. The research infrastructure must be safeguarded and collaboration within the research is crucial, with a special focus on implementing the results in practice. Many parties have a considerable need for this knowledge, such as parties that produce and process plastics and are striving to achieve a circular economy, but also organisations responsible for water, air and food quality

If we know what is actually absorbed in the body and what the effects are, we can work with the industry to find solutions to prevent exposure.


The key message from the knowledge agenda is the need for more research. ZonMw, TNO and Health~Holland, together with various knowledge institutions and industrial partners, are taking a first step in this direction. They are jointly providing 5.4 million euros in funding for the MOMENTUM consortium. The aim of this consortium is to determine the effects of micro- and nanoplastic particles (MNPs) on human health and ultimately to prevent this. First of all, methods will be developed to analyse and measure MNPs in the human body. Next, research will be conducted into where in the human body these plastic particles might be absorbed. This can occur via the airways and the gastrointestinal tract and it remains to be seen whether these plastic particles could end up in the brain or in an unborn child. Finally, the potential effects of MNPs on our immune system will also be investigated.

The MOMENTUM consortium builds upon the work of 15 breakthrough projects that started in the spring of 2019 within the ZonMw research programme Microplastics & Health. These projects focussed on the same subjects. ‘We know very little about whether MNPs are actually absorbed by the body’, says Juliette Legler (Utrecht University), Professor of Toxicology and project leader of MOMENTUM. ‘There are initial indications for this but we will now investigate it using far more samples from human blood and various tissues. That will help us to gain a better understanding of exposure in humans and to determine how serious this exposure is. In addition, we want to record the effects of MNPs. If we know what is actually absorbed in the body and what the effects of this are, then together with industry we can search for solutions to prevent exposure.’ Toxicologist Dick Vethaak (Deltares), also project leader of MOMENTUM, agrees with this: ‘It is a very complex and long-term study. However, we are making good progress in the Netherlands and we expect to make a considerable step forwards in the coming years. We will also search for potential new dangers of plastic particles. The first ZonMw projects revealed that certain bacteria and viruses thrive on plastic and can therefore enter the body via MNPs. Now we will further investigate what effect that might have on our health.’

In MOMENTUM, researchers from universities, university hospitals and research organisations will work together with companies and important stakeholders. Through scientific knowledge,

MOMENTUM will make an important contribution to solving the societal problem of MNPs in our living environment. Therefore, according to Legler, MOMENTUM’s impact will extend beyond the current project duration of three years; ‘The project is a next step towards an investment in the national infrastructure for microplastics, in which all parties jointly seek solutions instead of working independently from one another.’

More research needed

This consortium is just a first small step in the right direction for continued further research. The presentation of the knowledge agenda is simultaneously a call to the parties involved to invest in research. Within ZonMw, there are several initiatives that focus on a healthy living environment and how, through healthy behaviour, this can contribute to people’s overall health. The topic of microplastics therefore falls within these initiatives. More research is needed to make a difference and in this, collaboration plays a crucial role.

Further information about microplastics research within ZonMw and the digital edition of the knowledge agenda can be found at www.zonmw.nl/microplastics-kennisagenda