Microplastics

Plastic is an integral material in society today, but it's degradation and abrasion into micro-and potentially nanosized particles and fibres, known as micro- and nanoplastics, throughout its life cycle present a global environmental issue. Recently, the contamination of the food we eat and the air we breathe by microplastics has prompted concerns for public health due to our inevitable exposure, the consequences of which are unknown.

Our team's interdisciplinary research addresses these important knowledge gaps across human exposure to accumulation to toxicology. Focusing on inhalation, our current work includes quantifying airborne microplastics in health-relevant size fractions; developing techniques for the detection of microplastics in complex environmental and biological matrices; and assessing the toxicity of microplastics using in vitro models of the human airway.

Research

The Microplastics research team aims to provide a holistic understanding of the risks that microplastics present to human health. With focus on the air, this is oriented around three key elements: external exposure, internal exposure, and toxicity.

Our research on external exposure involves the characterisation and quantification of airborne microplastics in different environments, including health-relevant size fractions. For this we have focused on incorporating automation in microplastic sample analysis, using Raman imaging and chemometrics. We are also developing complimentary mass spectrometry-based methods for the detection of microplastics and their associated chemicals in complex environmental and biological matrices. More broadly, we are exploring the sources, transport, and fate of airborne microplastics in the UK.

This is complimented by work on internal exposure and, specifically, the occurrence of microplastics in the human lung, in collaboration with the MRC Toxicology Unit. In parallel, we are addressing microplastic toxicology using in vitro models of the human airway. Focusing on environmentally representative microplastic particles, we are interested in understanding the potential hazards, the physicochemical properties which influence this and whether these are unique to plastic.

We are always looking to improve our methods and test material and welcome opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration.

Team members

Dr Stephanie Wright

Professor Frank Kelly

Mr Joseph Levermore