Researchers are unanimous: the biggest threat when it comes to microplastics and chemicals is a lack of knowledge. There is no overview of all chemical substances, how they interact and how they affect human health and the environment.
What is the state of research today regarding plastics and chemicals? What are the threats and opportunities? We’ve asked some people who have researched chemicals and plastics in our environment for a long time: Bethanie Carney Almroth, senior lecturer in animal physiology, and Thomas Backhaus, professor of ecotoxicology. Thomas Backhaus also heads FRAM, the Research Centre for Future Chemical Risk Assessment and Management Strategies, which promotes sustainable use of chemicals.
Both agree that there is still too little knowledge about chemicals and microplastics and that we lack a comprehensive picture of the situation. The number of new substances and fields of application is increasing all the time, and there is a continuing race against time to map out the use of chemicals and their properties and effects.
“We’re talking about thousands of chemicals, and new ones are added constantly. All are not dangerous, but some are”, says Bethanie Carney Almroth, who is studying the effects of microplastics on fish.
Plastics in the sea is a hot topic now, and something that the public has taken seriously. In July 2018 a new ban on microplastics in certain cosmetic products is being imposed, and many hope this is the beginning of a more comprehensive ban.
Bethanie points out that although knowledge of microplastics has markedly increased, much more research on how plastic affects us and ecosystems is still needed.
In the manufacture of plastic, various substances are added, such as stabilisers, plasticisers, bleaching agents and colouring. Even if properties of the individual substances are identified, additional knowledge is needed of manufacturing processes, mixtures and how substances change over time.
“In the environment plastic can bind with other chemicals found in the water or sediment, such as dangerous toxic substances that do not break down easily”, Bethanie says. “We can examine what happens under simplified conditions in laboratory settings, but this does not provide sure-fire conclusions about what’s happening in complex environments such as the ocean.”
And plastic is not one, but rather many different substances. In addition, there are many other problems with chemicals that require research, which is less obvious and more difficult to communicate.
“If we focus too much on one subject or problem, there is a danger that others will be overlooked”, says Thomas Backhaus.
Sweden has been a driving force in many issues related to chemicals management, including the development of the REACH regulation that now applies in all EU countries and deals with the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemical substances.
“We need to find out more, collect facts and try to see the whole picture”, says Thomas. “Given that we are exposed to a variety of chemicals at the same time, for a long period, we need to be aware of what is called the ‘cocktail effect’ – that is, that chemical mixtures can be more toxic than each individual component.”
He emphasises that plastics and chemicals are not in themselves bad; on the contrary, they are and have been extremely important for us and the prosperity that we have built up. In addition, far from all chemical substances are hazardous.
“But we have to strike a balance to be able to make the right choice when it comes to the use of chemicals and any replacement products”, Thomas adds.
It’s largely a matter of collaboration and communication – for example, between researchers and industry.
“We researchers have a great responsibility to communicate intelligibly. If we communicate the wrong things, we can inspire solutions that do not really solve the problems”, says Bethanie Carney Almroth.
Although the situation may seem a little dark when it comes to environmental issues, the researchers maintain that there’s hope.
“I think we will be able to make changes and improvements. But we must do it now. The situation was already critical 10 years ago”, she says.
See interviews with Bethanie Carney Almroth and Thomas Backhaus (English subtitles)
Sustainable use of chemicals is a global challenge. FRAM, the Research Centre for Future Chemical Risk Assessment and Management Strategies, is part of the University of Gothenburg’s commitment to meet global societal challenges, with the collective name UGOT Challenges. Within FRAM researchers are working in an interdisciplinary fashion, with a focus on chemical combinations. The centre is run by a multidisciplinary team of environmental scientists in ecotoxicology, ecology, environmental chemistry, life cycle and environmental systems analysis, environmental economics, and environmental and tax law.