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EU Stresses Need for Greater Focus on Microplastic Particles After New Alarming Study

The EU has expressed concerns over the presence of microplastics in aquatic environments following the outcome of a recent study. The study aimed at exploring the potential sources of these microplastic particles, and if and how different forms of treatment affected their concentrations. The EU underlines that more research is needed in the field of microplastic pollution of drinking water, so as to avert the potential threat to the environment and human health.

On 8 August 2019, the European Commission’s publication “Science for Environment Policy” announced that the study had explored the quantity of microplastic particles found in raw fresh water and treated potable water. Although it was found that the treated water contained fewer particles than the raw water, the amount of microplastics found in the treated water was still significant.

In addition, the majority of the microplastics identified (more than 70%) comprised polyethylene terephthalate, polypropylene and polyethylene, which – as Hong Kong sellers may know – are commonly and widely used in clothing, toys, automotive parts, food and cosmetic containers, various household goods, packaging for disposable beverages and more.

Due to the common use of microplastics in consumer goods, the study and the consequent reaction of the EU should be of relevance and interest to companies selling such goods to EU consumers.

The researchers collected samples of raw and treated water from three separate water plants in urban areas of the Czech Republic. The samples included a number of different water sources and treatment technologies. All samples were found to contain microplastics but the concentration of microplastics was an average of 83% lower in treated than in raw water. Still, the amount found in treated water was not negligible.

The average microplastic content for raw water at plants one, two and three across the whole sampling period was 1,473, 1,812 and 3,605 particles per litre, respectively. These differences are probably due to factors such as water body type, ambient environment, human activity in the surrounding area, and weather conditions at the time of sampling.

The average microplastic content for treated water at plants one, two and three across the period was, respectively, 443, 338 and 628 particles per litre.

These data demonstrate that significant amounts of microplastics were removed by the treatment process. It was also found that flotation, a process used at plant three, appears to be a suitable method for removing microplastics from raw water, as many plastics are light and buoyant. It removed an average of 82% of microplastic particles during treatment.

More than 70% of the microplastics found were polyethylene terephthalate, polypropylene and polyethylene, which are commonly and widely used in the products mentioned above. These products are thus likely to be the main source of microplastic particles, although more insight into how these particles get from those products into potable water is required.

Furthermore, up to 95% of the particles found were particles between one and 10μm (the average size of a bacterium). These small particles may be crucial in the context of the exposure of microplastics to humans, and it is therefore felt necessary to determine the risk of those particles to human health.

The EU aims to tackle the threat of microplastic pollution of drinking water in various ways. It has already adopted and worked on several initiatives in this regard. There is the Water Framework Directive adopted in 2000, which seeks to raise the quality of European water bodies. Of more relevance to Hong Kong traders, there is the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, adopted in 2018, which pushes for the sustainable design, use, production and recycling of plastic products throughout the EU.

More specifically, Hong Kong sellers may recall that the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) published a restrictions dossier stating that an EU-wide restriction of intentionally added microplastics would be justified because of the health and environmental risks posed by these microplastics (see: Issue No. 85/2019 of the Regulatory Alert-EU).

In this dossier it was said that microplastics are manufactured and intentionally used in many mixtures placed on the market in the EU. It is these ‘intentional’ uses of microplastics which are the focus of the proposed restriction. The intent of the proposed restriction is not to regulate the use of polymers generally, but only where they meet the specific conditions that identify them as being microplastics and where their use will result in releases of microplastics to the environment.

The scope of the proposed restriction covers a wide range of uses in consumer and professional products in multiple sectors of interest to Hong Kong traders. These include cosmetic products, detergents and maintenance products (e.g. as fragrance encapsulation in laundry detergents and fabric softeners as well as in products for cleaning and polishing); paints, coatings and inks; food supplements; construction materials and medicinal products; and various products used in agriculture and horticulture, and in the oil and gas sectors.

ECHA’s scientific committees will review the restrictions dossier and provide their opinion. If any proposed limitation on microplastics in products is approved by the European Commission, an EU-wide restriction could be in place by mid-2021, which would affect Hong Kong traders of consumer goods containing them.

Parallel to the EU’s findings, the World Health Organization (“WHO”) also conducted research on microplastics in drinking water. It found that, based on the limited information at hand, microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to pose a health risks at current levels. According to the research, microplastics larger than 150 micrometres are not likely to be absorbed in the human body and uptake of smaller particles is expected to be limited. However, the WHO does call for a reduction in plastic pollution to benefit the environment and reduce human exposure. Moreover, it says that further research is needed to obtain a more accurate assessment of exposure to microplastics and their potential impacts on human health.

The EU is also preparing actions to address microplastics resulting from the use of products, such as tyres or textiles, or from primary plastic production, for instance spills of pre-production plastic pellets.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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