Indonesian food scientists have launched the largest ever study into whether microplastics can affect human health.

Food technologist Inneke Hantoro, of the Department of Food Science at Semarang’s Soegijapranata Catholic University, is leading the study, investigating the presence of tiny plastic particles in seafood while also tracking the diets of 2,000 people.

There is no evidence yet that ingesting small pieces of plastic is harmful but potential impacts cannot be ruled out. The project aims to analyse how much plastic is contained in seafood, how much of it people eat, and whether a safe level of consumption can be devised.

Plastic pollution is a serious and growing issue in Indonesian rivers and coastal seas. A recent study by US plastics researchers found that Indonesia was the world’s second largest contributor of plastic waste to the oceans after China. Research has shown microplastics are being ingested by many seafood species including fish, bivalves, and shrimp.

The issue is of concern to Indonesia, which has a growing food industry. Food and beverage manufacturing accounted for 5.6% of the country’s GDP in 2015, according to the Bank of Indonesia (BI). The industry is also the largest subsector of Indonesia’s manufacturing industry, representing around one-quarter of total manufacturing value. The food industry is one of the 10 priority industry groups designated for accelerated development in the government’s Master Plan of National Industry Development 2015-35. The subsectors in this mainstay industry include milk processing, vegetable oil processing, fruit and vegetable processing, flour and sugar cane – and, pertinently, fish processing.

The growth in the sector has seen an increase in food science and technology research and innovation in Indonesian academia and industry to improve the safety and competitiveness of the food industry.

Hantoro told BBC News: “With the uncertain conditions right now, where the toxicological data is still limited, we cannot let the situation run as usual because we know consumers are starting to be aware of the presence of plastics – it will make them worry, so we need to do something.”

While she concedes it will not be possible to set a definitive safety standard for plastic consumption until more data is available, she hopes to come up with “interim guidance”, potentially proposing a food safety standard that would remove seafood that contains a very high level of microplastics from the market.

The first stage of the project involved gathering 450 samples of six different types of seafood and screening them for microplastic.

The next phase includes an unprecedented campaign to follow the diets of 2,000 volunteers over a period of 2-4 weeks. As a coastal city, Semarang has a relatively high consumption of seafood. A key task is to find out how people prepare it and whether they take any steps that might minimise their intake of plastic.


(via BBC, Oxford Business Group)


Featured image: Plastic fragments found in dissected fish, by Algalita Marine Research and Education