The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has been commissioned by the European Commission to investigate risks imposed by microplastics used in cosmetics, detergents and other household products.
The agency said that its assessments had found that microplastics in such products are more likely to be released to, and accumulate in, terrestrial and freshwater environments rather than the oceans.
“We have identified diverse sources of microplastics to the environment from intentional uses in cosmetics, detergents, other household products, paints, and agricultural uses, among others. Many of these microplastics are washed down the drain at the point of use,” explained ECHA's senior scientific officer Peter Simpson 22 Nov, during the MICRO 2018 Fate and Impact of Microplastics conference in Lanzarote, Spain.
According to Simpson, due to how wastewater is treated in the EU, such microplastics will not typically be released directly to aquatic environments. Instead, they are more likely to concentrate in sewage sludge that is frequently applied to agricultural soils as a fertiliser in many member states.
There are also direct uses of microplastics in fertilisers and plant protection products, said Simpson adding, that there was a “deep concern” about the persistence of microplastics.
“Once released, they can be extremely persistent in the environment with some having half-lives estimated to be thousands of years,” the ECHA official warned.
This could be a cause for concern as the long-term risks associated with the accumulation of microplastics in agricultural lands cannot be assessed currently.
According to Simpson, the European Commission has asked ECHA to investigate whether an EU-wide restriction for intentionally added microplastics would be warranted.
ECHA is assessing the risks that microplastics could pose to the environment once they are released, and will specifically address their extreme persistence in the environment and the difficulty in removing them once they are there.
The European agency expects to finalise its restriction proposal on microplastics at the beginning of 2019.
The opinion making in ECHA's scientific committees – committee for risk assessment (RAC) and committee for socio-economic analysis (SEAC) – takes about 14 months and therefore the opinion of the committees is expected to be sent to the EC by April 2020.
Separately, ECHA is also looking at risks posed by oxo-degradable plastics.