Microplastics are a major source of environmental pollution, and fish swim in plastic soup all their lives. Can you actually eat fish with confidence?
They roam en masse in the sea and have been seen in Antarctica and Mount Everest. In the summer, scientists found the highest concentration ever in the Mediterranean Sea near Sardinia. They are in human waste and baby bottles, in vegetables, fish and (sea) fruit. Indeed, we are talking about microplastics.
These are tiny plastic particles that are sometimes added to products (cosmetics, paint or fertilizers) and often wear off from other products, such as when driving (car tires) or in the wash (synthetic clothing). Larger plastics crumble in the sea into microplastics.
“If you put a plate of mussels on the table, after a few hours they will probably have stored more microplastics from the air than they already had from their marine life.”
Dick Vethaak, professor of water quality and health
Polluted sea, polluted fish?
The fact that microplastics are in the water does not automatically mean that they end up in the edible parts of fish and crustaceans and shellfish, says Willie Peijnenburg professor of Environmental Toxicology and Biodiversity at Leiden University. “It could be that animals that pump a lot of water through their bodies absorb more.”
Dick Vethaak, professor of water quality and health at the Free University and associated with the Deltares research institute, knows that so far researchers have mainly looked at relatively large plastic particles in the stomach contents of fish, mussels and oysters. “Oysters and mussels filter water, so that microplastics are concentrated in it. In general, you will find more plastic in mussels and oysters than in fish stomachs.”
Jan Andries van Franeker of Wageningen Marine Research adds that we do not eat the stomach and intestines of most fish and sea fruit. “This does apply to mussels, although they are usually defecated before we eat them. The amount of plastic in the edible parts has not yet been properly researched. These are often nanosized particles.”
Microplastics are everywhere
Peijnenburg notes that the presence of microplastics in food is seen as a major problem, even though it concerns very small amounts. “Of course you don’t want there to be six plastic particles in a liter of beer, but we get a multiple of that in through other routes, such as air pollution. And inhaling small particles can be dangerous, whether it concerns soot, fine dust, etc. or plastics. “
“House dust in particular contains a lot of microplastic fibers, which are released by wear and tear from synthetic floor coverings, curtains and clothing,” says Vethaak. “They whirl around and hit cutlery and food so that we inhale them or eat them. If you put a plate of mussels on the table, after a few hours they will probably have stored more microplastics from the air than they already contained in them (previous ) live in the sea. “
“Of course you don’t want there to be six plastic particles in a liter of beer, but we get a multiple of that in through other routes, such as air pollution.”
Willie Peijnenburg Professor of Environmental Toxicology and Biodiversity
Heather Leslie, environmental scientist in the department of environment and health at the VU University Amsterdam, emphasizes that we do not yet know how many nano- and microplastics people ingest per day and how they accumulate in tissues. That is why it is not yet possible to make a reliable risk estimate of the health effects on humans.
However, Tinka Murk, professor of marine ecology at Wageningen University, thinks that the risk of microplastics in food is negligible. “Everything to date indicates that no health problems are to be expected from microplastics entering the body through the mouth.”
Her colleague Bart Koelmans, professor of Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management, thinks that relatively large particles are excreted by the body. This may be different for nanosized microplastics. Then they could pass through the intestinal wall and other membranes in the body.
Just keep eating fish
Although much is still unclear about the health effects of microplastics, the experts are unanimous in their advice. Just keep eating fish. “Fish fatty acids can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Wieke van der Vossen, food safety expert at the Netherlands Nutrition Center. “You can replace these fatty acids with a vegetable supplement, but there are probably even more good substances in fish that you do not consume. The Health Council advises to eat fatty fish at least once a week.”