Recently, there has been an increasing attention to the growing amount of plastics and microplastics in the environment. This includes seafood, and in Norway plastic has been found in the stomach of cod. Research in this field still needs to deal with large knowledge gaps, and NIFES is among the research institutions working to fill these gaps.

Since February, NIFES has been involved in an EU project to investigate which method is best suited to analyze microplastics in sea water, sediments and marine organisms.

Microplastics are plastic particles less than five millimeters long, which mainly derive from the breakdown of larger plastic items, such as fishing gear and disposables such as plastic bags, cups and Q-tips. Other sources of microplastics are pellets from plastic production, synthetic clothes, wear of tires and paint residue. Microplastics can also be small particles which are added into products for an abrasive effect, such as into cosmetics. Microplastics are not filtered out in conventional washing machines or sewage water treatment, and will therefore partly end up in the sea. Water from roads and urban areas also carries plastic into the sea. Microplastics are found in water, sediment and organisms, and have the potential to affect the marine ecosystem, globally.

In order to obtain a comprehensive picture of how large the microplastic pollution is, we need to compare different studies. There are several different methods for measuring the amount and type of microplastics, but so far, these methods have been too diverse for comparison. The BASEMAN project, a consortium including 24 laboratories from 11 European countries, set out to solve this challenge. NIFES will deliver identical samples of fish and shellfish to most of these laboratories. In some of the samples, a standardized type and amount of microplastics will be added. The aim is to compare methods for measuring the amount and type of plastic in the different samples, and to develop a common methodology.

Microplastics can concentrate organic pollutants, and it is likely that the environment of the stomach in animals and humans will cause the release of these substances. The amount of absorption and transfer to the filet is unknown. However, our baseline survey of contaminants in cod from 2013 showed that the levels of organic contaminants in the fillets of this fish were low. Nevertheless, it is still possible that the plastic itself has a negative impact on the viability of organisms, and that other organisms probably experience greater exposure than cod.

Investigation and documentation of the condition of seafood organisms is ongoing in several institutes and programs. After establishing standard methods for measuring the quantity and type of plastic, we will be able to assess whether this should be included in the monitoring programs, as part of ensuring the food safety and security.

The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) has made a preliminary assessment of the problem of plastic particles related to food safety. Their conclusion is that we currently have too little data. Therefore, EFSA calls for increased activity in the field, in which NIFES will contribute.

You can find the EFSA report here.

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