Key messages: Microplastics are a major emerging pollutant of concern as the chemical compounds within them can pose a threat to human health. While much data is available on the presence of microplastics in the environment, knowledge on the health impacts of microplastics is currently lacking. The European Commission initiated regulatory actions, such as a restriction on the sale of non-degradable and non-soluble synthetic polymer microparticles and of products that contain them. While a number of research projects are ongoing, significant data gaps remain regarding microplastic sources, exposure pathways and levels of concern for humans and the environment.

Microplastics in the environment

The consumption of plastics has grown rapidly over the past few decades due to their unique characteristics such as durability, corrosion resistance and affordability. Plastics are now used in a wide variety of consumer and industrial applications. However, estimates suggest that in 2019, 22% of plastic waste was mismanaged, burned or leaked into aquatic and terrestrial environments, e.g. through wastewater treatment.

Microplastics, i.e. small plastic pieces less than 5 mm in diameter, can result from a few sources. They include the breakdown of larger plastic debris; unintentional release through the wear and tear of products (e.g. car tyre abrasion or from synthetic textiles); or being intentionally added in the micro-form to products (e.g. microplastic beads in cosmetics). Microplastics are of particular concern in the environment because their small size means they can be transported over long distances. They may carry chemical and biological agents, such as toxic additives, persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals, with associated negative effects on the environment and human health.

Microplastics are considered an ubiquitous pollutant and have been found in indoor and outdoor air, drinking water, foodstuff and in many areas of the globe, including remote locations such as the Antarctic. In both terrestrial and water environments, microplastics can be transferred throughout food chains in different ecosystems.

Health impact(s) of microplastics

Humans are exposed to microplastics by ingesting food and beverages or inhaling airborne microplastics. Once ingested, chemical substances can leach out, including those added to plastics to enhance their properties (e.g. plasticisers) which are known to cause adverse health effects to humans and animals. While those chemical compounds are known to be toxic to humans and animals from (eco)toxicological assessments, there is insufficient evidence about their effects as a result of exposure to microplastics.

The existing knowledge on toxicity is too preliminary to evaluate the environmental risks of microplastics. The main evidence comes from laboratory studies that investigate the toxicity of microplastics (usually in concentrations higher than those found in the environment). Nevertheless, research has linked microplastic exposure to adverse health impacts in humans. The scientific evidence therefore indicates a need for policies to mitigate current and future risks to ecosystems and human health. In September 2023, the European Commission adopted a restriction on microplastics which will prohibit the sale of non-degradable and non-soluble synthetic polymer microparticles and of products that contain them (with a number of derogations, such as use at industrial sites). The first measures, which include the ban on loose glitter and microbeads, entered into force in October 2023.

In its Zero Pollution Action Plan, the European Commission also set a target to reduce the volume of microplastics released into the environment by 30% by 2030, compared to 2016 levels. This target was made with specific reference to emissions into surface waters. It is expected to be achieved through the sound implementation of the 2020 Circular Economy Action Plan.

Ongoing research into the health impacts of microplastics

Microplastic concentrations have been studied in terrestrial and aquatic environments but data remain scarce. In the EU, for example, the 2019 TARA missions and the Ocean Race Europe in 2021 captured microplastic samples from the Baltic Sea, the English Channel and the Mediterranean Sea. The United States National Centres for Environmental Information (NCEI) also collects publicly available microplastic pollution data from various research cruises and field work. While a number of studies have reported levels of microplastics in surface waters and drinking water, few data sets exist based on regularly updated monitoring. Furthermore, there is currently limited understanding regarding what constitutes ‘safe’ levels of microplastics in the environment with respect to human and ecosystem health.

A number of projects that have studied the relationship between hazardous chemicals, including certain microplastics and health impacts, have been undertaken or are being undertaken in the EU:

  • PLASTICHEAL, Imptox, PLasticFatE and POLYRISK are ongoing projects set to finish in 2025, which all aim to investigate the impact and consequences of micro- and nanoplastics on different aspects of human health;
  • AURORA focuses on the early-life human health impacts from exposure to micro- and nanoplastics.

Remaining challenges and regulatory developments

Apart from data on microplastic concentrations in the environment, there are a number of other important knowledge gaps related to microplastics. The European Commission's project report on plastics highlights a number of key information gaps that need to be addressed, including exposure levels to microplastics and the sources and routes to humans and the environment. The report also emphasises challenges related to the hazard characterisation of microplastics due to their heterogeneity in terms of physico-chemical properties. Inconsistencies also exist in the methods applied by researchers and even a lack of a standardised definition of microplastics that limits the comparability of (eco)toxicity studies, which is an issue that needs to be addressed.

The European Commission has proposed that microplastics should be included in surface and groundwater watch lists under the Environmental Quality Standards Directives (EQSD) and should be monitored as soon as suitable monitoring methods are identified. It was further proposed that a harmonised measurement standard and guidance for microplastics in water should be developed as a basis for reporting by Member States. Such methods have not yet been specified.

In the proposed Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR), the issue of the release of microplastics along the product lifecycle is addressed as a parameter to be considered in possible performance requirements.

References and footnotes

  1. OECD, 2022, Global Plastics Outlook: Economic Drivers, Environmental Impacts and Policy Options (
  2. ECHA, undated, Microplastics (
  3. Bostan, N., et al., 2023, ‘Toxicity assessment of microplastic (MPs); a threat to the ecosystem’, Environmental Research 234 (116523) (
  4. Tumwesigye, E., et al., 2023, ‘Microplastics as vectors of chemical contaminants and biological agents in freshwater ecosystems: Current knowledge status and future perspectives’, Environmental Pollution 330 (1), 121829.
  5. Yuan, Z., et al., 2022, ‘Human health concerns regarding microplastics in the aquatic environment - From marine to food systems’, Science of the Total Environment 823 (153730) (
  6. Waller, C., et al., 2017, ‘Microplastics in the Antarctic marine system: An emerging area of research.’ Science of the Total Environment 598, pp. 220-227 (
  7. Gaspéri, J., et al. ,2018, ‘Microplastics in air: Are we breathing it in?’, Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health 1, pp. 1-5 (
  8. Campanale, C., Massarelli, C., Savino, I., Locaputo, V., & Uricchio, V. F., 2020, ‘A detailed review study on potential effects of microplastics and additives of concern on human health,’ International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17 (4), 1212 (
  9. Dissanayake, P. D., et al., 2022, ‘Effects of microplastics on the terrestrial environment: A critical review’, Environmental Research 209 (112734) (
  10. OECD, 2021, Policies to Reduce Microplastics Pollution in Water, Focus on Textiles and Tyres (
    a b
  11. UNEP, undated, Microplastics (
  12. ECHA, 2019, Annex XV Restriction Report Proposal For A Restriction (
    a b c
  13. Li, Y., et al., 2023, ‘Potential Health impact of Microplastics: A review of environmental distribution, human exposure, and toxic effects’, Environment & Health 1 (4), pp. 249-257 (
  14. EU, 2023, Commission Regulation (EU) 2023/2055 of 25 September 2023 amending Annex XVII to Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) as regards synthetic polymer microparticles (Text with EEA relevance) (OJ L 238, 27.9.2023, pp. 67–88).
  15. World Health Organization, 2019, Microplastics in drinking-water (
    a b
  16. Koelmans, A.A., et al., 2019, ‘Microplastics in freshwaters and drinking water: Critical review and assessment of data quality’, Water Res 155, pp. 410-422.
  17. Leslie, H.A., and Depledge, M.H., 2020, ‘Where is the evidence that human exposure to microplastics is safe?’ Environ Int 142 (10.1016/j.envint.2020.105807).
  18. EC, 2019, A Circular Economy for Plastics (
  19. EC, 2022, Proposal for a DIRECTIVE OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL amending Directive 2000/60/EC establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy, Directive 2006/118/EC on the protection of groundwater against pollution and deterioration and Directive 2008/105/EC on environmental quality standards in the field of water policy (COM/2022/540 final).
  20. EU, 2008, Directive 2008/105/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2008 on environmental quality standards in the field of water policy, amending and subsequently repealing Council Directives 82/176/EEC, 83/513/EEC, 84/156/EEC, 84/491/EEC, 86/280/EEC and amending Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council (OJ L 348, 24.12.2008, p. 84–97).
  21. EC, 2022, Proposal for a REGULATION OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL establishing a framework for setting ecodesign requirements for sustainable products and repealing Directive 2009/125/EC.