FOOD, HEALTH, AND THE ENVIRONMENT (KE NACHMAN AND D LOVE, SECTION EDITORS)
Microplastics in Seafood and the Implications for Human Health
&David C. Love
&Chelsea M. Rochman
&Roni A. Neff
Published online: 16 August 2018
#The Author(s) 2018
Purpose of Review We describe evidence regarding human exposure to microplastics via seafood and discuss potential health
Recent Findings Shellfish and other animals consumed whole pose particular concern for human exposure. If there is toxicity, it
is likely dependent on dose, polymer type, size, surface chemistry, and hydrophobicity.
Summary Human activity has led to microplastic contamination throughout the marine environment. As a result of widespread
contamination, microplastics are ingested by many species of wildlife including fish and shellfish. Because microplastics are
associated with chemicals from manufacturing and that sorb from the surrounding environment, there is concern regarding
physical and chemical toxicity. Evidence regarding microplastic toxicity and epidemiology is emerging. We characterize current
knowledge and highlight gaps. We also recommend mitigation and adaptation strategies targeting the life cycle of microplastics
and recommend future research to assess impacts of microplastics on humans. Addressing these research gaps is a critical priority
due to the nutritional importance of seafood consumption.
Keywords Microplastics .Toxicology .Ocean .Seafood .Fish .Human health impacts
Since the 1960s, plastic production has increased by approx-
imately 8.7% annually, evolving into a $600 billion global
industry [1,2]. Approximately eight million metric tons of
plastics enter the oceans annually , and conservative esti-
mates suggest 5.25 trillion plastic particles currently circulate
in ocean surface waters [3•]. While some plastics enter oceans
from maritime operations, 80% is suspected to originate from
land-based sources . Discarded plastic materials enter the
marine environment as trash, industrial discharge, or litter
through inland waterways, wastewater outflows, and transport
by winds or tides . Waste generation and waste leakage are
inextricably linked and proportionally associated with eco-
nomic development, local infrastructure, and legislation.
Today, uncollected waste accounts for 75% of these land-
based discharges, while the remaining 25% comes from with-
in the waste management system .
When plastics enter the ocean, the rate of degradation and
persistence of plastics varies by polymer, shape, density, and
the purpose of the plastic itself [3•]. These characteristics also
govern where in the water column plastics may be found. For
example, more buoyant plastics are more likely to be carried
by ocean currents and wind across the environment [3•].
Additionally, when plastics are exposed to natural forces like
sunlight and wave action, plastics will degrade into
microplastics—defined as plastic particles under 5 mm in size.
This definition commonly includes plastic pieces in the nano-
scale, < 1 μm in size. The extent of plastic degradation de-
pends on factors including polymer type, age, and environ-
mental conditions like weathering, temperature, irradiation,
and pH . Over time, plastic particles contaminate the ma-
rine ecosystem and the food chain, including foodstuffs
intended for human consumption . In vivo studies have
This article is part of the Topical Collection on Food, Health, and the
*Roni A. Neff
Department of Environmental Health and Engineering, Bloomberg
School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD,
Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Bloomberg School of
Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, 615 N. Wolfe St., W7010,
Baltimore, MD 21205, USA
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of
Toront o, Toronto, O N, Canada
Current Environmental Health Reports (2018) 5:375–386
demonstrated that nanoplastics can translocate to all organs
. Evidence is evolving regarding relationships between
micro- and nanoplastic exposure, toxicology, and human
Nutritional authorities advise Americans to double their
seafood consumption; however, awareness or concerns about
microplastics in seafood could lead consumers to reduce their
consumption. Research to understand and reduce human
health risks is critical in order to simultaneously protect con-
sumers and support their nutritional health.
This review begins with a background on microplastics,
ocean dispersal, physical and chemical properties, and degra-
dation. Where relevant, we provide information about
nanoplastics. We then explore the life cycle of microplastics
including their toxicity and epidemiology in humans and an-
imals, strategies for mitigation and adaptation, and research
We conducted an unstructured literature review using
PubMed, Google Scholar, Nature’s database, and Science
Direct, focused on literature published after 2004 (the year
the term, “microplastic,”was introduced). We employed the
following keywords: microplastics, microdebris, primary
microplastics, secondary microplastics, nanoplastics, pellets,
marine debris and plastics, microbeads, marine biota, food
web, harmful effects, environmental policies, and industry.
These sites were searched until saturation occurred. Websites
of organizations with interest in this topic were also explored:
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and The Group of
Experts on Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental
Protection (GESAMP) of the United Nations, European
Food Safety Authority (EFSA), United States Department of
Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA),
and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA). The resultant articles were organized and synthe-
sized into an overview describing the current state of the sci-
ence. Insights from this review were used to identify recom-
mendations for future research and mitigation.
Background on Microplastics
Sources and Distribution
In the marine environment, microplastics are a heterogeneous
group of particles (< 5 mm), varying in size, shape, and chem-
ical composition. They are found in sediment, on the sea sur-
face, in the water column, and in wildlife [7,8]. Table 1de-
scribes the most common plastic polymer types in the marine
environment. Of these, the most common plastic types
manufactured are polyethylene and polypropylene .
Microplastics are often categorized into primary and sec-
ondary types. Primary microplastics were originally produced
to be < 5 mm in size, while secondary microplastics result
from the breakdown of larger items. Microbeads in personal
care products are an example of primary microplastics [9•].
While they are now being phased out globally, in 2015, an
estimated eight billion microbeads were released into aquatic
habitats from the USA daily . Other sources of primary
microplastics include industrial abrasives and pre-production
plastic pellets used to make larger plastic items. Sources of
secondary microplastics include microfibers from textiles, tire
dust, and larger plastic items that degrade and, consequently,
fragment intomicroplastic particles, mostly due to weathering
degradation . Even if humans halted plastic production
and prevented plastic waste dumping, marine microplastics
would continue to increase as larger plastic litter degrades into
secondary microplastics [9•].
Physical and Chemical Properties
Microplastics in the marine environment are typically found
as pellets, fragments, or fibers and are composed of diverse
polymers , some denser than seawater and expected to
sink to the seafloor. These include polyamide, polyester, po-
lymerizing vinyl chloride (PVC), and acrylic, among others.
Others are lighter than seawater and are often found floating at
the surface, including polyethylene, polypropylene, and
Plastic products are composed of monomers joined to make
the polymer structure and additive chemicals. During produc-
tion, plastic is processed with additives to provide specific
properties . Several thousand distinct additives are used,
including plasticizers, flame retardants, pigments, antimicro-
bial agents, heat stabilizers, UV stabilizers, fillers, and flame
retardants such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)
[13,14••,15]. Additives account for approximately 4% of the
weight of microplastics [14••]. Once created, plastic polymers
are described as non-toxic because they are not reactive and
generally cannot easily transport across biological membranes
due to their size . However, non-polymeric substances,
like chemical additives or residual monomers, can be hazard-
ous to human health and the environment when they leach
from the plastic polymer matrix . As plastics progressively
degrade, the surface area to volume ratio increases and addi-
tive chemicals are expected to leach . Leached chemicals
may bioaccumulate in animals from seawater . For organ-
isms that have directly ingested microplastics, the uptake rate
of additive chemicals by an organism’gastrointestinal tract is
primarily influenced by the chemical fugacity gradient be-
tween the organisms’tissues and the plastic, the gut retention
376 Curr Envir Health Rpt (2018) 5:375–386
time of the microplastics, and the material-specific kinetic
In addition to additive chemicals being associated with
plastic debris, microplastics in the ocean accumulate persistent
organic pollutants (POPs) such as polychlorinated biphenyls
(PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and or-
ganochlorine pesticides like dichlorodiphynyltrichloroethane
(DDT) or hexachlorobenzene (HCB) from the water [18,19].
These have a greater affinity for plastic than water, and con-
centrations on microplastics are orders of magnitude greater
than in surrounding water [19,20]. PBDEs are human-made
flame-retardant chemicals. PBDEs enter the marine environ-
ment mainly via discarded or leaked consumer goods or mu-
nicipal waste. Plastic deposited on beaches from the marine
environment have been found to contain from 0.03 to 50 ng/g
The global distribution of chemicals in the marine environ-
ment may affect environmental and human health, but
microplastics do not represent the only exposure pathway. In
fact, microplastics may represent a relatively small contributor
to the total risk as there are many other sources for chemical
exposure . For example, the total dietary intake of PCBs
from microplastics is likely minimal compared to that from
other sources, as identified in Table 2. For other chemicals,
such as bisphenol A (BPA) or PBDEs, sources of exposure
may be limited to or originate from microplastic degradation.
Degradation of Marine Plastics
Plastic is persistent in the marine environment because it is
manufactured to be durable. Still, plastic polymers can be
degraded slowly by microorganisms (e.g., Bacillus cereus,
Micrococcus sp., or Corynebacterium), heat, oxidation, light,
or hydrolysis, as identified in Table 3. The rate and extent of
plastic degradation are determined by the environmental var-
Microplastics in the Food Chain
Exposure to Microplastics by Marine Animals
A 2016 UN report documented over 800 animal species con-
taminated with plastic via ingestion or entanglement—afigure
69% greater than that reported in a 1977 review, which esti-
mated only 247 contaminated species [21,22]. Of these 800
species, 220 have been found to ingest microplastic debris in
Plastic ingestion occurs across taxa within different trophic
levels, including marine mammals, fish, invertebrates, and
fish-eating birds [8,9•]. Plastic particles are often found con-
centrated in an organism’s digestive tract during carcass dis-
section and laboratory research. With preference to smaller
particles, micro- and nanoplastics can persist in the animal’s
body [6,9•,11,22,23] and translocate from the intestinal tract
to the circulatory system or surrounding tissue .
Human Exposure Pathways
microplastic exposure. As of 2015, global seafood intake rep-
resented 6.7% of all protein consumed and approximately
17% of animal protein consumption . Global per capita
seafood consumption is over 20 kg/year; in the USA, it is 7 kg
annually . Global seafood trade in 2016 was $132.6 bil-
lion, and over 90% of US seafood was imported from geo-
graphic regions with significant waste leakage and pelagic
plastic pollution . Roughly half of seafood is farmed (e.g.,
aquaculture) and half is wild-caught. It is possible to control
environmental conditions in aquaculture—by raising animals
in ponds, tanks, or selected water bodies—and animals gen-
erally have shorter lifespans in aquaculture than in the wild,
which could provide less opportunities and time for
microplastic exposure and uptake. Due to few studies, there
Table 1 Common application of
plastic found in the marine
environment and the frequency of
polymer type identified in 42
studies of microplastic debris
sampled at sea or in marine
Plastic resin type (acronym) Application Percent of studies
(n) that identified
Polyethylene, high-density (PE-HD) Milk and juice jugs 79 (33)
Polyethylene, low-density (PE-LD) Plastic bag, six pack rings, bottles,
netting, and drinking straws
Polypropylene (PP) Rope, bottle caps, and netting 64 (27)
Polystyrene (PS) Plastic utensils, food containers 33 (17)
Polyamide (PA) Nylon fabric 17 (7)
Polyester (PES) Polyester fabric 10 (4)
Polyvinylchloride (PVC) Film, containers and pipes 5 (2)
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) Plastic beverage bottles 2 (1)
Adapted from [9•,10]
Curr Envir Health Rpt (2018) 5:375–386 377
is uncertainty about the differences in microplastics for farmed
and wild fish and shellfish.
Because of their small size, microplastics can be ingested
by a wide variety of marine organisms. Ingestion may be
direct or indirect via trophic transfer (e.g., up the food web).
Microplastic ingestion has been documented in planktonic
organisms and larvae at the bottom of the food chain
[25–28], in small and large invertebrates [6,7,11,29,22]
and in fish . Trophic transfer of microplastics was observed
in the predatory Crucian carps .
Microplastics are found in many species intended for hu-
man consumption including invertebrates, crustaceans, and
fish [23,31•]. Plastic particles are often found concentrated
in an organisms’digestive tracts such that bivalves and small
fish consumed whole are more likely to expose microplastics
to the human diet [9•]. For example, Fig. 1illustrates move-
ment of plastic from bivalve mollusks to the human diet. Van
Cauwenberghe and Janssen  found farmed mussels had
significantly higher microplastic concentrations (178
microfibers) than wild-caught mussels (126 microfibers)
. Additionally, Rochman et al. identified the presence of
microplastics (> 500 μm) in commercially sold, wild-caught
fish from markets in Makassar, Indonesia (28% of fish proc-
essed contained microplastics), and California, USA (25% of
commercial fish processed contained microplastics) [31•].
Karami et al. investigated the potential presence of
microplastics in dried fish tissue: excised organs (viscera and
gills) and eviscerated flesh (whole fish, excluding the viscera
and gills) . In four of 30 commonly consumed dried fish
species, 36 of 61 isolated foreign particles were identified as
Table 2 Comparing the estimated total dietary exposure to contaminants and additives directly from microplastics in seafood
Compound Highest concentration
Calculated intake from
microplastics (pg/kg bw/day)
Total intake from the
diet (pg/kg bw/day)
Ratio intake microplastic/total
dietary intake (pg/kg bw/day) (%)
Non-dioxin like PCBs 2970 0.3 ––
EFSA, 2012 –– 4300
JECFA, 2016 –– 1000
PAHs 44,800 4.5 ––
EFSA, 2008 –– 28,800
JECFA, 2006 –– 4000
DDT 2100 0.2 ––
EFSA, 2006 –– 5000
JECFA, 1960 –– 100,000,000
Bisphenol A 200 0.02
EFSA, 2015a –– 130,000
FAO/WHO, 2011 –– 400,000
PBDEs 50 0.005 ––
EFSA, 2011 –– 700
JECFA, 2006 –– 185
NP 2500 0.3 NA
OP 50 0.005 NA
Reproduced with permission from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2017) and Lusher et al. 
PCBs polychlorinated biphenyls, PA H s polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, DDT dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, PBDEs polybrominated diphenyl
ethers, NP nonylphenol, OP octylphenol
Lowest intake of six indicators of non-dioxin like PCBs, representing about 50% of all non-dioxin like PCBs
Median intake (EFSA, 2008)
Mean intake of benzo[a]pyrene (JECFA)
Lowest intake, DDT, and related compounds (EFSA, 2006)
Average intake adults (EFSA, 2015a)
Lowest intake FAO/WHO
Lowest intake, sum of BDE-47, BDE-209, BDE-153, and BDE-154 (EFSA, 2011)
Lowest intake JECFA
NA: dietary intake not available from EFSA or JECFA
Provisional tolerable daily intake (JECFA)
378 Curr Envir Health Rpt (2018) 5:375–386
plastic polymers . In young and adult fish, Yifeng et al.
demonstrated microplastic particle translocation from diges-
tive tracts to the gills and liver of zebra fish (Danio rerio), a
common prey fish . Microplastic particle translocation is
also documented in European seabass and the common goby
(Pomatoschistus microps). Together, these studies dem-
onstrate the presence of microplastics, not the chemical con-
stituents, in some seafood and indicate that the challenge
could be widespread due to ubiquity in the environment and
translocation potentially moving particles to animal parts typ-
ically eaten by humans.
Because water and salt are often extracted from the natural
world, researchers investigated whether products made with
these ingredients were also contaminated with nano- and
microplastics. They investigated and found microplastics in
beer , honey , and sea salt . While the origin of
these contaminants is uncertain, potential sources include at-
mospheric emission and uptake of microplastics by the basic
components of the food products, impurities introduced by
processing materials, and the contaminants present in packag-
ing . Increasingly, scientific evidence outlines multiple
pathways of microplastic exposure via food including
Because they ﬁlter water, bivalves (such as mussels, oysters, clams and
others) can absorb and excrete microplastic present in the sea water
where they are cultivated
After harvesting, shellﬁsh are usually kept in clean water to get rid of
contaminants. The shellﬁsh expel some microplastics, while others remain
inside, reach the market and end up on the consumer’s plate
Sea water inhaled
Sea water inhaled
An example of how microplastics could end up on a consumer's plate
Sources: Tjärnö Marine Biological Laboratory, Strömstad, Sweden; personal communication with Dr. Sarah Dudas
Fig. 1 An example of how microplastics could end up on a consumer’s plate (Reproduced with permission from Maphoto/Riccardo Pravettoni;
originally published by Marine Litter GRID-ADRENAL, available at www.grida.no/resources/6915
Table 3 Explanation of
degradation processes Degradation process Explanation
Biodegradation Decomposition of organic materials by microorganisms
Photo degradation Action of light or photons, usually sunlight (UVA or greater, >320 nm)
Thermooxidative degradation Slow oxidative, molecular deterioration at moderate temperatures
Thermal degradation High temperature cause molecular deterioration
(not an environmental mechanism)
Hydrolysis Reaction with water
Curr Envir Health Rpt (2018) 5:375–386 379
evidence that microplastics are present in species which con-
tribute to global marine fisheries . Accordingly,
International scientific committees such as the Joint FAO/
WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) has
not evaluated the food safety concern posed by microplastics
; however, state-level environmental protection agencies
have begun assessing the public health implications of
microplastics and nanoplastics .
Human health effects depend on exposure concentrations.
Due to data gaps in microplastic research, there is insufficient
information to assess the true amount of microplastics humans
may be exposed to via food. Researchers have predicted that
the total microplastic intake from salts is at most 37 particles
per individual annually . Researchers have also estimated
that a top European shellfish consumer eats approximately
11,000 plastic particles annually [23,32,37]. The implications
Microplastic exposure also can confer exposure to associ-
ated chemicals. Few studies have assessed the relative contri-
bution of microplastic exposure to additives or chemicals
found in organisms, versus alternative exposure pathways
. The EFSA monitors six indicators for non-dioxin-like
PCBs in food to assess average total dietary exposure to
PCBs. While the portion of exposure from microplastics is
unknown, fish, meat, and dairy contribute the greatest dietary
exposure to PCBs, demonstrating a route of persistent expo-
sure to animal tissue and trophic level transfer . It was
determined that total dietary PCB intake ranged from 1 to
83 ng PCB/kg bodyweight (bw) per day . The average
dietary intake of PAHs, using benzo[a]pyrene as the reference
marker, ranged from 4 to 10 ng/kg b.w. per day .
The US FDA residue limit for PCBs in fish and shellfish is
0.2 ppm for infants and juniors and 2 ppm for adults, corre-
sponding to developmental effects, hormonal disruption, im-
mune system, thyroid effects, and cancer . The FDA has
not established a limit governing the concentration of PAH
content in foodstuffs . In animals, the US Environmental
Protection Agency has identified a reference dose for oral
benzo(a)pyrene exposure, the most studied PAH, at
0.0003 mg/kg/day . The oral reference dose applies
to food and water and estimates the concentration at
which adverse effects on human health are known to
occur. Additional studies are needed to understand the
biological processes influencing the release of chemicals
associated with microplastic ingestion, and all routes of
chemical exposure .
Today, evidence is mounting suggesting that microplastic
ingestion or its associated chemicals pose a threat to marine
animals [9•,14••,31•]. Understanding whether microplastic
exposures impact human health requires standardized and re-
producible methods for sampling, exposure characterization,
ecologicalassessment, and human health assessment. There is
no standard operating procedure for sampling occurring on
beaches, in subtidal sediments, in biota, or within the water
Toxicity to Humans
Microplastics may cause harm to humans via both physical
and chemical pathways. While it is not possible to completely
disentangle these, we separate them for the purpose of this
Potential Physical Effects of Microplastics
Microplastics are ubiquitous in the marine environment and
are increasingly contaminating species in the marine environ-
ment. Given levels of seafood consumption worldwide, it is
inevitable that humans are exposed to microplastics at some
level. The human body’s excretory system eliminates
microplastics, likely disposing of > 90% of ingested micro-
and nanoplastic via feces [14••,44•]. Factors affecting reten-
tion and clearance rates are the size, shape, polymer type, and
additive chemicals of microplastics ingested by humans .
The severity of adverse effects resulting from exposures de-
pends on the nature of the toxic chemical, exposure character-
istics, individual susceptibility, and hazardcontrols. The phys-
ical effects of accumulated microplastics are less understood
than the distribution and storage of toxicants in the human
body, but preliminary research has demonstrated several po-
tentially concerning impacts, including enhanced inflammato-
ry response, size-related toxicity of plastic particles, chemical
transfer of adsorbed chemical pollutants, and disruption of the
gut microbiome [44•].
Surface functional groups, size, shape, surface charge,
buoyancy, and hydrophobicity predict microplastic uptake
. Mammalian systems modeling suggests that
microplastics with certain characteristics can translocate
across living cells, such as M cells or dendritic cells, to the
lymphatic and/or circulatory system, accumulate in secondary
organs, and impact the immune system and cell health [14••,
43,45–51]. Microplastics may contact the airway or gastroin-
testinal epithelium demonstrating several routes of uptake and
translocation, such as endocytic pathways and persorption
[44•]. Medical literature related to the impact of micro- and
nanoplastics originating from surgical procedures and inhala-
tion provides insight into the kinetic movement of plastics in
humans . For example, micro- and nanoplastics released
from surgical materials mimic the effects of absorbed particles
in the bloodstream and tissue , while inhaled particles in-
teract with the same type of epithelial tissue as that involved
during ingestion. For example, microbes colonized on the
surface of ingested microplastics may serve as a vector of
harmful bacteria when ingested, potentially resulting in direct
380 Curr Envir Health Rpt (2018) 5:375–386
physiological effects (nutritional, toxicological, immunologi-
cal, or developmental) on marine animals. Wright and Kelly
predict that ingested microplastics may cause inflammation in
tissue, cellular proliferation, and necrosis and may compro-
mise immune cells [44•]. While laboratory research has dem-
onstrated that plastic microspheres ingested by blue crabs
(Callinectes sapidus) stimulate hemocyte aggregation and re-
duce their respiratory function . Moreover, after ingesting
microspheres, blue mussels experienced an immune response
and the formation of granulomas . The Japanese medaka
(Oryzias latipes) experienced hepatic stress after ingesting
virgin polyethylene fragments . Factors influencing the
biological and ecological impact of microplastics include
presence, sizes, and frequency of engagement between bio-
ta-microplastics. More research is needed to further inform
a risk assessment of the impact of microplastics on sea-
food and consequently human health. It would be valu-
able to conduct a risk analysis monitoring microplastics
and the related chemical concentrations in seafood, partic-
ularly shellfish to identify the potential biological conse-
quences of microplastic exposure. Additionally, in this
stage, it is important to monitor consumer consumption
rates of seafood, particularly bivalves. This information
will inform a risk evaluation and management or mitiga-
tion strategies connecting sources and drivers of
microplastic pollution. This approach integrates a systems
perspective that employs precautionary measures to re-
duce the threat of harm posed by microplastics to the
environment and to humans given present uncertainty.
Nanoplastic movement provides insight into the move-
ment and potential effects of non-degradable particles in
the human body. The potential health risks of micro- and
nanoplastics could be evaluated similar to those of
engineered nanoparticles [14••]. Following oral exposure,
nanoplastics are transported by M cells, specialized epi-
thelial cells of the mucosa, from the gut into the blood
where they are carried through the lymphatic system and
into the liver and gall bladder . Their size and hydro-
phobicity enable their passage through the placenta and
blood-brain barrier and into the gastrointestinal tract and
lungs, potential sites for harm to occur . Their large
surface area to volume ratio makes them potentially very
chemically reactive, more so than some microplastics.
Research studies have demonstrated toxicity in vitro to
lung cells, liver, and brain cells [9•]. The systemic distri-
bution from oral exposure to nanoparticles has been
shown to have numerous effects: cardiopulmonary re-
sponses, alterations of endogenous metabolites,
genotoxicity, inflammatory responses, oxidative stress, ef-
fects on nutrient absorption, gut microflora, and reproduc-
tion [14••,36,46]. Parallel research into nanoparticle
movement and toxicity provides insight into threats posed
by microplastics and nanoplastics.
Potential Effects of Chemical Additives
Chemical additives in plastic may cause toxic effects.
Moreover, the ability for microplastics to accumulate POPs
raises concern that microplastics could transfer hazardous
POPs to marine animals and subsequently humans .
Chemical partitioning between microplastics and animal
tissue is a dynamic process; there are few studies that
model variables and mechanisms like bioaccumulation,
kinetics, and the physicochemical properties of marine
Direct exposures to POPs and other chemicals associated
with microplastics may affect biological systems and pose
specific threats to juvenile humans and animals, including at
low doses [9•,40]. Current guidelines for toxicity testing of
chemical components use high contaminant concentrations
from a single substance to estimate risk at lower exposure
levels or to make low-dose extrapolations. This method fails
to capture concerns related to low-dose contaminants or mixed
groups of contaminants. Additionally, this method makes it
challenging to account for non-linear dose relationships. As
a result, these methods fail to generate data that captures the
potential threat posed by chemicals associated with
Ingestion is a common interaction between biota and
microplastics. The fate and impact of microplastics and their
associated chemicals vary across species and environments
. Laboratory studies demonstrate increased toxicity from
the combination of microplastics and associated chemicals
[51,58]. It is difficult to evaluate whether toxicological im-
pacts translate to humans, however . In animals, the quan-
tity of chemicals from microplastics is suspected to be mini-
mal compared to that from other components of the diet .
Microplastics and their constituents may exert localized parti-
cle toxicity, but chronic exposure producing a cumulative ef-
fect is of greater concern. In summary, further work is required
to estimate the dose of chemicals to humans from
microplastics in seafood and the related effects, including
studies of seafood intake, chemical characterization in sea-
food, and kinetic studies.
In human medicine, microplastics are used as carriers of med-
ications into body tissues . A report commissioned by the
House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee of the
UK Parliament speculates that the additives and contaminants
of concern, when adsorbed to marine microplastics, would act
similarly to microplastics used in medical procedures, which
transfer to human tissues , though there is insufficient data
demonstrating this .
Curr Envir Health Rpt (2018) 5:375–386 381
We do not fully understand how microplastics interact with
human biological tissue. For example, if there is an adverse
interaction, the effects may be apparent and significant to the
individual, but without sufficient and extensive epidemiolog-
ical studies, impacts may be difficult to detect at a population
level. There is a significant correlation between urine BPA
levels and both cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes
. BPA exposures in humans occur both from low-
dose exposures to microplastics and both low- and high-
dose exposures from non-microplastic sources via inhala-
tion of air and dust or ingestion of foodstuffs. Research is
needed to thoroughly assess the risk of microplastics and
nanoplastic dietary exposure.
Microplastics and their constituents may exert localized
particle toxicity, but chronic exposure producing a cumulative
effect is of greater concern. To address research gaps, it is
recommended that scientists evaluate the relative impact of
microplastics as an exposure pathway. Further, it would be
valuable to identify sorbed contaminant bioavailability and
use biomonitoring methods to contextualize safe toxicological
exposure parameters for chronic exposure to microplastics
and their constituents .
Mitigation of and Adaptation to Risks
The above sections have described the state of evidence
linking microplastics to potential human and animal health
risk. Microplastics, chemical toxicity, and chronic exposure
to microplastics may pose risk to human health, especially
with increasing direct exposure to plastic and localized
chemicals. And, while significant gaps remain, complimenta-
ry bodies of evidence indicate likely exposures and potential
hazards from both particles and associated chemicals. The
impact of microplastics on human health is uncertain, but
cannot be ignored, and presents one justification to mitigate
the increasing influx of plastic into the environment.
Table 4 Global agreements and domestic legislation governing protection of the marine environment
A. Global agreements to protect the marine environment from dumping
Convention of the Prevention of Marine Pollution by
Dumping of Wastes and other Matter (London Convention 1972)
Limits the quantities of land-based waste permissible for dumping in the ocean
International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from
Ships, 1973, as modified by the protocol of 1978
Provides measures to prevent pollution from ships and nation states, Annex
V: garbage 
1982 UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982) Provides a maritime framework addressing the rights and obligations of states.
XII: protection and preservation of the marine environment 
Honolulu Strategy A global framework to reduce marine plastic and its ecological, human health,
and economic impacts 
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14.1, 2015 By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce pollution marine debris, particularly
from land-based activities 
Clean Seas Campaign Engaging individuals, industries, and member states of UNEP to voluntarily
commit to reducing plastic pollution 
B. Key US Federal legislation to protect the marine and coastal
Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act
(MPRSA), 1972 (also known as the Ocean Dumping Act)
Regulates and restricts dumping materials of any kind into the oceans which
would adversely affect human health, welfare, or amenities, or the marine
environment, ecological systems, or economic potentialities 
Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 Intended to protect and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity
of the nation’swaters
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 1976 (RCRA) Principal federal law governing the disposal of solid and hazardous waste 
Shore Protection Act 1988 (SPA) Requires a vessel have a permit, number, orother marking visible if transporting
municipal or commercial waste within coastal waters 
Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act,
2006 (MDR PRA) (5. 362, 2006)
Identifies, determines sources of, assess, prevents, reduces, and removes marine
debris in addition to addressing the adverse impacts of marine debris on the
economy of the USA, marine environment, and navigation safety
Microbead-Free Waters Act (H.R. 1321, 2015) Prohibits the manufacture of personal care products containing microbeads,
including those made of biodegradable polymers, as of July 1, 2017
Save Our Seas Act (S.756, 2017) Providing funding for marine debris cleanup in coastal states and educational
outreach addressing the topic of marine debris as well as promoting
international action to reduce the incidence of marine debris
382 Curr Envir Health Rpt (2018) 5:375–386
Governments, industry, and civil society all have important
roles to play.
Multiple global agreements and domestic policies govern
protection of the marine environment; Table 4identifies sev-
eral notable policies. Since the enactment of The United
Nations Law of the Sea in 1982, a coastal country has sover-
eign rights extending 200 nautical miles from its shoreline. It
is, therefore, the responsibility of governments in those loca-
tions to determine who may use this area and how. With di-
verse cultures, priorities, and opinions present in each coastal
country, levels of protection differ considerably.
Industry also plays a critical role in reducing microplastic
prevalence throughout the supply chain, in the form of prima-
ry microplastics used in industrial processes and secondary
microplastics. Extended producer responsibility (EPR), a
stewardship policy targeting corporations marketing consum-
er goods, holds manufacturers responsible for the post-
consumer phase of plastic packaging . IKEA, for example,
has integrated EPR policies into its business model by pro-
moting material reuse and recycling throughout its supply
chain and consumer experience. The company indicates in
their Sustainability Summary Report F17 that 590,258 t of
waste was produced in 2017 across their supply chain of
which 83% was recycled or incinerated for energy recovery
.Other companies are utilizing focused upcycling strate-
gies in their supply chain by directly removing, recycling, and
reclaiming plastic from the marine environment to create tex-
tile fibers which are then processed and manufactured into
yarn for consumer goods.Adidas, for example, partnered with
Parley for the Oceans in 2015, to manufacture sneakers and
clothing from plastic pollution in the Maldives using a zero-
waste 3D printing technique. In 2017, Adidas sold one million
pairs of Parley collaborated shoes, equivalent to 16.5 million
plastic bottles and 14.3 t of nylon gill nets [70,71]. Unifi,
Bureo, CityPlace, Method, and G-Star RAW clothing have
also taken steps to reduce ocean plastic pollution through
Ocean Plastic Programs [A.I.R., Avoid, Intercept, and
Redesign] . While these are not EPRstewardship policies,
A.I.R. is a step in the right direction.
Another approach to mitigation is beach cleanup pro-
grams. These are generally organized by non-
governmental organizations (NGOs) globally and aim
both to raise awareness about marine debris and to re-
move materials that could cause harm and gradually de-
grade into microplastics. The International Coastal
Cleanup (ICC) coordinated by the Ocean Conservancy, a
US NGO, is one of the largest operational organizers of
these programs, providing significant financial and social
input . The ICC engages 70 countries globally in an
annual September weekend litter survey and beach clean-
up activity . From the 2016 event, 790,000 volunteers
participated in collecting 18 million pounds of trash
across over 25,000 miles of shoreline .
The extent to which these efforts influence marine plastic
pollution or protect the environment is unknown. It is also
unclear how measures aimed at preventing plastic pollution
leakage compare with reactive measures such as beach
cleanups, in terms of cost-effectiveness.
We know that humans ingest microplastics. Considering the
totality of research findings on microplastics to date, we know
that shellfish and other marine organisms consumed with intact
GI tracts pose particular concern because they accumulate and
retain microplastics. The toxicity associated with consuming
microplastics is likely dependent on size, associated chemicals,
and dose. Our collective understanding is limited regarding the
sources, fate, exposure, bioavailability, and toxicity of
microplastics and their associated chemicals in the marine en-
vironment. Current knowledge is mostly based on research
conducted within the last decade; however, interest in studying
microplastics is growing. The following are key research needs
for microplastics and their effects on human health:
&Assess microplastics’impact on ecological systems and
food safety and improve understanding of potential toxi-
cological mechanisms and public health effects.
&Identify, if possible, lower risk species, production
methods, or regions, and interactions of microplastics with
nutrients and various seafood processing and cooking
methods, in order to promote adjustments rather than con-
sumer avoidance of seafood.
&Standardize data collection methods for microplastic oc-
currence in the environment and food stuffs, followed by
exposure assessment for dietary intake.
&Standardize data collection assessing major seafood pro-
duction types and seafood producing countries.
&Collect data on presence, identity and quantity of degrad-
ed plastic in food, and data on the translocation of
microplastics through the aquatic food web and human
&Develop methods to assess physical and chemical changes
of micro- and nanoplastics when interacting with biolog-
&Collect toxicity exposure data evaluating mixtures of var-
&Collect toxicological data on the most common polymers and
their relative contributions to microplastic contamination.
&Develop specific biomonitoring processes and body bur-
den measurements for additives and monomers.
&Research the toxicokinetics and toxicity of micro- and
nanoplastics and their associated chemical compounds,
to determine local gastrointestinal (GI) tract effects in an-
imals and humans.
Curr Envir Health Rpt (2018) 5:375–386 383
While much remains to be learned, filling these gaps is
essential for advancing the dual goals of promoting seafood
consumption and protecting consumers from negative health
effects from microplastics in the marine environment.
Support for D.C.L. and R.A.N. was provided by the Johns
Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) with a gift from
the GRACE Communications Foundation, which had no role
in study design, analysis, findings, or development of recom-
mendations. The authors thank Jillian Fry, Shawn McKenzie,
Jim Yager, Keeve Nachman, Mardi Shoer, and Marc
Weisskopf for their insightful feedback.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest Madeleine Smith, David C. Love, Chelsea M.
Rochman, and Roni A. Neff declare that they have no conflict of interest.
Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent This article does not
contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://
creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appro-
priate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the
Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
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