What answers do scientists need to address from a policy regulatory standpoint when it comes to risk assessment of micro- and nanoplastics (MNPs)? With that question in mind, over 150 professionals from different fields, collaborators of the five CUSP research projects, and representatives from various EU and international regulatory authorities gathered online on February 7, 2023, for the first session of the CUSP workshop series on Human Risk Assessment of MNPs.
The workshop focused on the regulatory insights and knowledge gaps that may hinder scientific work and was organised by the cluster’s working group 5 (WG5) on risk assessment, together with PlasticHeal. It was divided into three blocks: a first part dedicated to EU policy updates, the second to present scientific insights into risk assessment, and the final one to discuss the current and future work and challenges on this issue from the CUSP cluster’s five projects.
To start the workshop, Steffen Foss Hansen, from WG5 and PlasticHeal, and Jane Muncke, from AURORA, presented the goals of the event, inspired by the need to harmonise the growing concern within the scientific community about the impact of MNPs on human health, including an understanding of the most important questions to be addressed by scientists to produce meaningful information for policymakers.
Valentina Vertato and Andrei Kobe, policy officers from the Directorate General (DG) Environment at the European Commission (EC), then presented what the commission is currently doing in terms of micro and nanoplastics (MNPs) that are either intentionally used (primary MNPs) or unintentionally generated (secondary MNPs). Vertato described which EU policies are tackling the concern of microplastic pollution and their status. She gave an introduction to the European Green Deal as the broader policy framework that guides the two main goals of the EC regarding MNPs: preventing pollution as well as minimising and controlling it. Specific actions to achieve those goals are included in the Zero Pollution Action Plan, Plastics Strategy, and Circular Economy Action Plan. Kobe presented more detail on the science gaps and the policy needs for better supporting EU policy, including: harmonised definitions; MNP sources; breakdown mechanisms of macroplastics, including pathways and fate in the environment; sampling, identification and quantification; environmental as well as human health risks and effects; economic impact assessment and instruments; innovative technologies (tracking, recycling, removal) and digital solutions, among others. Andrej Kobe also mentioned that DG Environment will shortly publish a new science for policy brief on nanoplastics and their health impacts, and that the restriction on primary microplastics is expected to be finalized by the end of 2023.
The knowledge gaps highlighted by both speakers are in line with the ones identified by the different working groups of the CUSP cluster included in the first Policy Brief produced by the five CUSP projects, describing the EU policy and legislative areas that can be informed by CUSP’s findings and how the project partners are achieving this. This document was also mentioned by the two speakers as one useful tool to help policymakers make informed decisions on MNPs, and they encouraged researchers to communicate their findings visually, i.e. using infographics that are accessible for policy makers.
Tobias Nielsen from the European Environment Agency (EEA) described how they gather and analyse data from different countries on environmental issues to help decision makers both at EU and national level make informed decisions on environmental governance. From academia, NGOs, and industry – he explained – they need support with the overview of new topics, impactful findings, and information on topics such as intersections between circular plastics, chemicals, and health, as well as data streams and indicators for measuring plastics and its impacts. He highlighted the need for more knowledge on exposure and key risks associated with MPNs.
Birgit Sokull-Kluettgen from the Joint Research Center, also part of the European Commission, summarised the presentations of the first block as well as provided comments and reflections to close this part of the workshop. She stressed that there is an urgent need for standardized methods to reliably quantify MNPs in various types of media, including seawater and soil where MNPs are equally present. However, MNPs can already be regulated, as is being done for drinking water.
Two speakers introduced the updates on risk assessment in the second part of the session: Djiem Liem, from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), explained EFSA’s ongoing and planned activities in the application of new approach methodologies (NAMs) for the risk assessment of chemical substances including those at nanoscale. Todd Gouin, from TG Environmental Research, described the main aspects of the 2022 WHO report on microplastics and health impacts, of which he is a co-author. One of the conclusions of this report is that the characterization and quantification of exposure to micro- and nanoplastics and the associated human health effects are incomplete and insufficient right now for risk assessment, as highlighted by Alba Hernández Bonilla, PlasticHeal coordinator and CUSP’s current president in 2022, while summarising the second block of the workshop. She pointed out the coincidence between this conclusion and the one from a previous study from 2016, in which the same knowledge gap was made clear.
The CUSP chair then raised some questions aimed at helping scientists to plan and reshape their approaches accordingly, and to understand how they can contribute to fill or reduce these knowledge gaps. In particular, she asked: To achieve a harmonised definition of MNPs, should the particle and additive effects be separated? How should we develop more true-to-life materials? Do scientists have enough understanding, methodologies, and technologies to plan studies tackling those issues? How should we balance the work with the need to produce data that do not have a risk of low regulatory acceptance? The Q&A session that followed engaged a wide variety of participants.
Risk assessment within the five CUSP projects was presented during the final block of the workshop by Raymond Pieters (POLYRISK), Rudolf Reuther (PlasticsFatE), Tanja Cirkovic Velickovic (IMPTOX), Virissa Lenters (AURORA), and Steffen Foss Hansen (PlasticHeal).