Three schools to research impact of microplastics on human health

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microplastics-sample
Researchers working on microplastic analysis need to know how many plastic particles exist in a sample, as well as the kinds of particles, the polymers and shapes, which can be time consuming. Photo Credit: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, via Flickr.

Canada is investing $2.1 million for three academic institutions to increase research on microplastics and their potential impact on human health.

McGill University, Memorial University of Newfoundland and the University of Toronto will receive the funding through the Environmental Health Research Contribution Program over four years.

Together they will investigate health issues from potential sources such as microfibres released from washing clothes or microbeads from soaps and cosmetics released through wastewater. Microplastics are typically considered pieces of plastic smaller than five millimetres in diameter. Humans may be exposed to them through the ingestion of food, bottled water, and tap water, as well as through the breathing of indoor and outdoor air, Health Canada states.

“There is a lot we don’t know about the effect of microplastics on human health,” announced Minister of Health, Mark Holland, in a statement. “That is why programs like this one were created – to support Canadian scientists in improving the understanding of the human health impacts of microplastics. These projects will not only expand our knowledge, but hopefully inspire more research and inform future actions to protect the health of Canadians.”

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In spring 2023, McGill University published research that showed microplastic pollution is altering the gut microbiomes of wild seabirds. 

“The more microplastics found in the gut, the fewer commensal bacteria could be detected,” stated Gloria Fackelmann, who conducted the study as part of her doctoral thesis at the Institute of Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation Genomics at Ulm University in Germany. “Commensal bacteria supply their host with essential nutrients and help defend the host against opportunistic pathogens. Disturbances can impair many health-related processes and may lead to diseases in the host,” she added.

Researchers working on microplastic analysis need to know how many plastic particles exist in a sample, as well as the kinds of particles, the polymers and shapes, which can be time consuming. The University of Toronto, for instance, has experimented with its engineering researchers using machine learning to enhance environmental monitoring of microplastics. 

The University of Waterloo has also utilized artificial intelligence to improve its microplastics classification process.

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