This theme encompasses many different facets of research across STEMM, the social sciences and humanities, including the sustainability of natural and modified ecosystems in the face of societal development and climate change, climate change science, adaptation and mitigation, mining and its corresponding global environmental challenges, sustainability and the circular economy.

Available PhD projects

3. Dietary exposure to microplastic debris and associated chemicals

UQ academic lead

Professor Kevin Thomas, Director, Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences

Exeter academic lead

Professor Tamara Galloway, Professor of Ecotoxicology, College of Life and Environmental Sciences

Background

Microplastic debris is a ubiquitous environmental contaminant of high global concern. Seafood forms a major protein source for a large proportion of the world’s population, and increasing reports of the occurrence of microplastic in food destined for human consumption raises a major issue for public health. Despite this, we know virtually nothing of the ecotoxicology and human health risks of microplastics and their associated contaminating chemicals.

Aim

To determine the comparative human health risks of exposure to microplastic through seafood, using UK and Australian aquaculture facilities as case studies.

Rationale

Micro- and nanoplastics (polymer fragment, films and beads of <5mm and with no lower size range) rapidly become coated in marine waters with a dynamic ecocorona comprised of organic material including priority pollutants, that gives them a unique chemical signature. There is increasing evidence that people may potentially be exposed to microplastic through their diet and that seafood is a major, but not exclusive, source.

Global annual per capita seafood consumption is ~20 kg with Australia and the UK representative of global consumers. Clearly, not all seafood contains microplastic debris and there is a pressing need to establish what the overall exposure concentrations from dietary sources are. This is matched by a need to establish the proportion of dietary exposure from microplastic to the overall chemical exposome; from both the polymeric material and the ecocorona. Little is known about how food preparation can influence exposure.

Experimental plan

Using our in house methods, you will extract, identify and quantify microplastics in seafood from aquaculture facilities in the UK and Australia. Isolated microplastic debris will be characterised for chemicals associated with the ecocorona and polymer by gas and liquid chromatography coupled to high-resolution mass spectrometry. By comparing these results with water and sediment samples from the same locations, the bioavailability (uptake into tissues) of microplastic and ecocorona chemicals will be estimated. In parallel laboratory studies, the impact of food preparation on bioavailability will be explored.

The data from field surveys will then be analysed with reference to epidemiological data from national chemical biomonitoring and biobank programmes to estimate relative exposure concentrations from dietary sources for UK and Australian consumers.

Deliverables

Ultimately, this project will aim to inform human health risk assessment for these priority pollutants, whilst providing an exciting and varied programme of work. You will receive training in a wide range of highly employable scientific skills relevant to a future career in environmental sustainability, ecotoxicology and human health.

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