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Europe's plastics damage will show in a century, research warns

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The chance that small plastic particles have already damaged nature in Europe is slim, shows a fresh study by Europe’s top independent experts.

But if microplastics continue to build up, environmental damage will show widely within 100 years, says the European academic advisory body SAPEA.

The report, which highlights a lack of knowledge about the future fall-out for people and the environment, was launched at The European Parliament on Friday.

Unusually, the evidence spans the science spectrum, including advice from social and behavioural scientists such as Brunel University London media sociologist Dr Lesley Henderson.

“I knew that there was very little research that explores what the public understand about microplastics and risk,” said Dr Henderson. “But I was surprised there are so many research gaps in the natural sciences. For example, how microplastics and nanoplastics are defined and measured can differ, and there are no standard measures for exposure and hazard.”

Dr Henderson’s insight will put policy makers in the picture about what messages people might take from what they hear, read and see about microplastics and risk.

“We won’t solve the problem of plastic pollution without huge cultural and social change, and it is important to recognise this,” she said. “So policy makers need to be aware of the messages coming through different media. This is even more important given the speed with which scientific stories can be diffused across social media.

“Media plays a vital role in bringing about positive societal change, so it’s important to work with media and be clear where there is uncertainty in the scientific evidence.”

The report has been handed over to the European Commission’s Group of Chief Scientific Advisors, who will use it to shape their scientific opinion on microplastics.

SAPEA’s Professor Bart Koelmans said: “The evidence about nano- and microplastics remains uncertain and complex. But a lack of evidence for risk doesn’t mean we should assume that there is no risk. As our social science colleagues point out, it’s vital we communicate clearly about uncertainties in the evidence, rather than just assuming that everything is fine just because we don’t know for sure.”

Read 'A scientific perspective on microplastics in nature and society' in full here

Reported by:

Hayley Jarvis, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268176
hayley.jarvis@brunel.ac.uk