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Microplastics: more research needed

04/2019, 22.01.2019

BfR Forum on the topic of "Microplastics" at the Green Week in Berlin

Microplastic in food is an issue of concern for people in Germany. As shown by the BfR Consumer Monitor (a regular population survey conducted by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR)) in November 2018, awareness of this issue has increased. Six months before, 45 percent of respondents had been worried about microplastics in food. This figure has risen to over 50 percent in the survey conducted in November. "Based on current knowledge, it is not assumed that the plastic particles in food pose health risks to consumers", says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel "Nevertheless, we still need more valid data and scientific studies. The BfR is investigating whether, and if so how, particles are absorbed via the intestine." The BfR Forum focuses on questions relating to this topic, such as where the plastic material comes from and to what extent it is contained in food products. Further key aspects include oral ingestion and toxicology as well as the risk assessment and risk perception of microplastics.

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Link to the programme (German only):

Currently, the BfR doesn’t have any validated data on the chemical composition, particle size and level of microplastic particles in food. Due to this lack of robust data, any health risk assessment of the consumption of foods containing microplastic particles is therefore subject to certain limitations. In the absence of scientific publications on this issue, little is known regarding the possible effects on the health of consumers. At the request of the BfR, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) prepared a comprehensive scientific opinion on the "presence of microplastics and nanoplastics in food, with particular focus on seafood". This opinion was published in May 2016: (EFSA 2016)

According to the EFSA Opinion, there is a possibility that microplastic particles of a certain size may be ingested orally, although the fate and degradation of these particles in the body have not been sufficiently investigated so far due to a lack of analytical methods and valid studies. According to EFSA, the available studies show that absorption in the intestine appears to be very low: only microparticles smaller than 150 micrometres (μm, 1 μm corresponds to 0.001 mm) can cross the intestinal barrier and only microparticles smaller than 1.5 μm can reach deeper-lying organs. No results from human studies are currently available.

Initial in-house analysis at the BfR using cultures of human intestinal epithelial cells and in animal experiments showed that, although plastic particles up to a diameter of approx. 4 μm can be absorbed in a cell culture by epithelial cells in the intestinal wall, they are found only sporadically in the analysed intestinal epithelial cells in animal experiments despite the fact that extremely large quantities of plastic particles were administered, ranging in size from 1 - 10 μm. The studies on the oral intake of microparticles carried out at the BfR to date using various model particles have not revealed any evidence of damage to the intestinal tissue.

Moreover, the BfR currently doesn’t have any information concerning the question of whether microplastic particles can deposit in the body.

On the one hand, microplastics are intentionally produced on an industrial scale in the form of plastic-based granulate ("primary microplastics"), and various plastics are used in this process, such as polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyamide (nylon) and ethylene vinyl acetate (EVAC). On the other hand, microplastics are also created when larger plastic elements decompose ("secondary microplastics"). The size parameters for microplastics are not uniformly defined in the literature and generally fluctuate between 0.001 millimetres (mm) and less than 5 mm. Based on current knowledge, secondary microplastics are one of the main sources via which these particles find their way into the environment.

About the BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientifically independent institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

This text version is a translation of the original German text which is the only legally binding version.




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