Research shows that microplastics - present in some cosmetics and cleaning products - are harming our environment

Date released: Jun 08 2017

Research shows that microplastics - present in some cosmetics and cleaning products - are harming our environment


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has today published the results of research which provides data and evidence on the sources and scale of microplastic pollution in Irish freshwaters for the first time. The research was led by researchers in the Marine and Freshwater Research Centre at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT). The research also points to a number of potential impacts of microplastics in Irish waters, to both humans and species, such as the freshwater pearl mussel.

In March this year, the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government launched a public consultation on proposed legislation to ban plastic microbeads in certain cosmetic and cleaning products. The findings of this research support the view that the best way to tackle and reduce microplastic pollution is to remove it at source rather than trying to address it after pollution occurs.

The research has identified some of the main sources of microplastics in Ireland. These include the plastics manufacturing and recycling industries, landfill, urban wastewater treatment plants, septic tanks and the sewage sludge/biosolids derived from such plants.  Urban wastewater treatment plants were identified as one of the largest point sources of microplastics in the current study and were found to be receiving microplastics from a number of different sources. The study also indicated that other sources could exist and contribute to this environmental issue.

Dr Anne Marie Mahon, GMIT, said,

“In addition to microbeads washed into the sewer from the use of personal care products, synthetic fibres from clothing transported in washing machine wastewater are another significant contributor of microplastics found in urban wastewater treatment plants.  Although some microplastics are discharged with the wastewater into receiving freshwater systems, most of these fibres become trapped in sewage sludge at treatment plants, which include a settlement treatment process.  Landspreading of these sludges on agricultural land poses risks to terrestrial ecosystems and potentially further risks to freshwater systems.”

The study highlighted a number of potential risks to humans, arising from:

  • Exposure to microplastics if present in drinking water or via consumption of food prepared using water containing microplastics;
  • Consumption of freshwater fish, such as salmon or trout, which have been exposed to or have ingested microplastics;
  • Accidental ingestion of water containing microplastics through bathing.

The study also identified 24 different species of molluscs, fish, birds, mammals and crustaceans, as being potentially at risk from microplastic pollution in Ireland, many of which are classified as endangered or vulnerable.

Dr Alice Wemaere, EPA Research Manager, said,

“This research provides us with vital national level data and information on the environmental sources and risks posed by microplastics in Irish freshwaters. Consumers can help by checking the product labels for cosmetics and cleaners to see if they certify they are microplastic free.

“The EPA is committed to further understanding the impacts of microplastics in the freshwater environment.  The EPA Research Programme is currently funding two additional research projects which will further investigate and provide the evidence of the impacts of microplastics in the freshwater environment in Ireland.”

The report, entitled “Scope, Fate, Risks and Impacts of Microplastic Pollution in Irish Freshwater Systems” is now available on the EPA website.

Further information: Niamh Hatchell/ Emily Williamson, EPA Media Relations Office 053-9170770 (24 hours) or media@epa.ie


Notes to Editor

The increase in plastic production and disposal over the last number of decades has resulted in plastic litter becoming an increasing environmental concern. Microplastics are a contributor to this plastic litter. Microplastics are defined as plastic particles less than 5mm in diameter. They are formed either through the breakdown of large plastic particles or through intentional production for products such as cosmetics and cleaning agents. Plastic microbeads are a type of microplastic found in certain cosmetic and cleaning products. Wastewater treatment facilities are not designed to filter out or remove microplastics so these non-biodegradable micro-particles can end up in rivers and oceans, potentially entering the food chain.

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