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Updated on 01/04/2019
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are small plastic particles that range in size from 5 millimetres down to a few hundred nanometres, 70 times smaller than the thickness of a hair. Microplastics are ubiquitous in the environment, being found in the air, in homes, in rivers, on land and in the oceans. It is estimated today that 10% of all plastics produced since their invention have ended their lives in the oceans. This makes them a priority area of study. They can float on the surface, be found at a range of depths or even settle on the ocean floor. All living species, from the smallest (e.g. zooplankton) to the largest (e.g. whales), can ingest them.
Currently, the plastics most commonly found in the environment are polyethylene (as a component of plastic bottles, for example), polypropylene (a component of plastic food boxes, for example) and polystyrene (often found in its expanded form as protective packaging).
By analogy, plastic can be defined as a dish of spaghetti Bolognese. The pasta equates to the polymer and is accompanied by the sauce, corresponding to a mixture of different additives, not bound to the polymer, which give the plastic its properties: flexibility, rigidity, fire resistance, etc.
Microplastics can be hazardous due to their composition, especially their additives, and potential chemical and biological (bacteria) contaminants that adhere to their surface.
ANSES's work on microplastics
ANSES is conducting research to assess the number and nature of plastic particles in certain foods, as well as the level of exposure and risk to human health. Its work mainly consists in developing the necessary tools to be able to characterise the risk associated with the presence of microplastics in foodstuffs. Given the extensive presence of microplastics in rivers, seas and oceans and their impact on aquatic fauna and flora, fishery products and drinking water are subjects of the utmost importance.
Various research projects are being conducted on this theme. As part of an ANR research project entitled "Nanoplastics", ANSES is improving the means (tools and methods) to identify the smallest microplastics found in seafood. In the same project, the Agency is also trying to establish whether microplastics can release certain additives specific to their composition into food.
At the local Boulogne level, ANSES is taking part in the MARCO project, supported by the CPER State-Region plan contract), which has enabled several teams to carry out collaborative work including a topic on microplastics.