A study of microplastics by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has said that the tiny materials used in cosmetics, detergents and other household products are most likely to show up on land and in fresh water rather than the ocean.
In a Nov. 22 presentation at Micro 2018, a conference on microplastics in Lanzarote, Spain, Peter Simpson, ECHA's senior scientific officer said the group has identified "diverse sources of microplastics to the environment from intentional uses" such as consumer products.
"Many of these microplastics are washed down the drain at the point of use,” Simpson said.
According to Simpson, because of how most countries in the European Union handle wastewater, the microplastics are not typically released directly to water sources. Instead the plastics end up in sewage sludge that is cleaned, then frequently applied to farmlands as a fertilizer in many EU countries.
There are also direct uses of microplastics in fertilisers and plant protection products, said Simpson adding, that there was a “deep concern” about the persistence of microplastics.
“Once released, they can be extremely persistent in the environment with some having half-lives estimated to be thousands of years,” he warned.
This could be a cause for concern as the long-term risks associated with the accumulation of microplastics in agricultural lands cannot be assessed currently.
According to Simpson, the European Commission has asked ECHA to investigate whether an EU-wide restriction for intentionally added microplastics would be warranted.
ECHA is assessing the risks that microplastics could pose to the environment once they are released, and will specifically address their extreme persistence in the environment and the difficulty in removing them once they are there.
The European agency expects to finalize its restriction proposal on microplastics at the beginning of 2019.