Professor Richard Thompson for homepage
A University of Plymouth academic is part of a collaboration from the fields of healthcare, the ocean and the environment who have worked together to quantify plastic's considerable risks to all life on earth.
Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS is among the scientists on the Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health, which has revealed a never-before-seen analysis showing plastic as a hazard at every stage of its life cycle.
Its key findings reveal that plastic causes disease, impairment, and premature mortality at every stage of its life cycle, with the health repercussions disproportionately affecting vulnerable, low-income, minority communities, particularly children.
The commission also reported that plastic waste is ubiquitous, with the ocean – on which we depend for oxygen, food and livelihoods – suffering beyond measure, with micro- and nanoplastic particles contaminating the water and the sea floor and entering the marine food chain.
It concludes that current plastic production, use, and disposal patterns are not sustainable and are responsible for significant harm to human health, the environment, and the economy, as well as deep societal injustices.
It also recommends establishing health protective standards for plastic chemicals under the Global Plastics Treaty, requiring testing all polymers and plastics chemicals for toxicity before entering markets, as well as post-market surveillance.
The report was launched during an event held as part of Monaco Ocean Week where Professor Thompson, Head of the University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, presented some of the findings.
He said:
“It is nearly 20 years since we showed the wide scale and long term acceleration of microscopic fragments of plastics, which we named ‘microplastic’. Literally thousands of research papers have followed on the topic, and while progress can sometimes feel slow, it is important to realise how much has changed. Twenty years ago there was denial that plastics presented an environmental issue. We now have that consensus exemplified in the UN Global Plastics Treaty. That’s a mandate for global change. What is critical now is that we have the same quality of independent scientific evidence to guide the way to solutions as we have had in defining the problem. The role of science is critical in addressing environmental challenges or we will repeat mistakes of the past.”
Professor Richard Thompson
Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS
The Commission urges that a cap on global plastic production be a defining feature of the Global Plastics Treaty, and that the Treaty continues its focus beyond marine litter to address the impacts of plastics across the entire life cycle, including the many thousands of chemicals incorporated into plastics and the human health impacts.
As well as informing policymakers, the work will educate physicians, nurses, public health workers, and the global public about the full magnitude of plastics’ hazards, which put the disadvantaged and poor, as well as women and children, at particularly high risk.
A slew of recommendations by the Commission includes funding to promote the development of technologies for detecting smaller MNPs in the environment and human tissue to adequately assess the presence and quantity of these particles.
In addition, mandated systematic biomonitoring and post-market surveillance of plastic chemical exposures and their health effects in human populations are required, as is already customary in the pharmaceutical and food industries.
Professor Sarah Dunlop, co-author and Head of Plastics and Human Health at Minderoo Foundation, said:
“These findings put us on an unequivocal path to demand the banning or severely restricting of unnecessary, avoidable, and problematic plastic items, many of which contain hazardous chemicals with links to horrific harm to people and the planet. In 2015, 4% of fossil fuel was used to make plastic and, by 2050, this is predicted to increase to 20%. Even worse, as fossil fuel production continues to soar, so will the profound impacts we already see increase even more.”

International Marine Litter Research Unit

Marine litter is a global environmental problem with items of debris now contaminating habitats from the poles to the equator, from the sea surface to the deep sea. 
Furthering our understanding of litter on the environment and defining solutions.
Marine litter

Studying marine and ocean degrees at Plymouth

Plymouth boasts one of the most prestigious clusters of marine teaching, research and educational organisations in Europe.