Research into microplastics and nanoplastics and chemical substances

23 November 2020

Exposome-NL researcher Roel Vermeulen (Julius Center and Utrecht University) has been granted a major European Horizon 2020 project and is also involved in another Horizon 2020 project. Both projects are connected with research into substances that are harmful to our health. A brief impression of the projects is provided below.

Risks of microplastics and nanoplastics during pregnancy and early life

Plastics in the environment sooner or later falls apart into ever smaller particles known as microplastics and nanoplastics. Although scientists can detect them everywhere in the environment these days, little is currently known about their effects on human health. Together with fellow scientists and four sister projects, project coordinator Roel Vermeulen will be developing a strategy for assessing the health risks. Vermeulen: ‘We will be focusing mainly on exposure and health effects during pregnancy, in the womb and in early life.’

I am convinced that we can make an important contribution to the question as to whether plastic particles are harmful to the developing child

In the AURORA project the researchers will focus on (unborn) children, as this phase of life is crucial for development and health at a later age. In addition, unborn and young children are more vulnerable to environmental pollution. ‘I am convinced that we can make an important contribution to the question as to whether plastic particles are harmful to the developing child’, says Vermeulen. ‘Researchers at AURORA were the first to demonstrate that small particles can reach the foetal side of the placenta, and recent research by Juliette Legler shows that this may also apply to microplastics and nanoplastics.’ The scientists will measure exposure to microplastics and nanoplastics in tissues that are relevant to early life development such as the placenta, umbilical cord blood, amniotic fluid, meconium (first stool) and foetal tissue. ‘The measurement techniques that we use to measure the chemical fingerprints of plastic particles in tissues are unique and were developed within the Gravitation programme Exposome-NL.’

Risk assessment of chemical substances without animal testing

The aim of the project RISK-HUNT3R is to better protect the population against health effects caused by (chronic) exposure to chemicals. To this end, scientists are developing a reliable, efficient and cost-effective approach to assess the safety of chemical substances. The researchers are doing so without the use of laboratory animals. The main innovation of RISK-HUNT3R is a full human-centric risk assessment strategy. Vermeulen: ‘Recently, in the journal Science, we called for a drastic innovation of the risk assessment of chemicals both pre- and post-marketing. We need to improve methods and achieve better integration between exposures and health effects in the experimental world and the real world.’ Among other things, the scientists are doing this by establishing a link with exposome research. This involves measuring thousands of chemicals in large groups of people and studying which changes occur in the biological system.

Areas of Expertise


Our ultimate goal is that people live healthily for longer

Our ultimate goal is that people live healthily for longer

We know far less about the exposome than we do about the human genome. So far, we only understand about half of the disease burden for which we know the environment plays a role. If we want to prevent people from becoming ill, then we need to understand the other half too. We therefore want to systematically analyse the exposome for the first time. We will start with research into the causes of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. The techniques and insights from this research will also be applicable to other chronic conditions.

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