Technological watch

What are the drivers of microplastic toxicity? Comparing the toxicity of plastic chemicals and particles to Daphnia magna

Given the ubiquitous presence of microplastics in aquatic environments, an evaluation of their toxicity is essential. Microplastics are a heterogeneous set of materials that differ not only in particle properties, like size and shape, but also in chemical composition, including polymers, additives and side products. Thus far, it remains unknown whether the plastic chemicals or the particle itself are the driving factor for microplastic toxicity. To address this question, we exposed Daphnia magna for 21 days to irregular polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyurethane (PUR) and polylactic acid (PLA) microplastics as well as to natural kaolin particles in high concentrations (10, 50, 100, 500 mg/L, ? 59 ?m) and different exposure scenarios, including microplastics and microplastics without extractable chemicals as well as the extracted and migrating chemicals alone. All three microplastic types negatively affected the life-history of D. magna. However, this toxicity depended on the endpoint and the material. While PVC had the largest effect on reproduction, PLA reduced survival most effectively. The latter indicates that bio-based and biodegradable plastics can be as toxic as their conventional counterparts. The natural particle kaolin was less toxic than microplastics when comparing numerical concentrations. Importantly, the contribution of plastic chemicals to the toxicity was also plastic type-specific. While we can attribute effects of PVC to the chemicals used in the material, effects of PUR and PLA plastics were induced by the mere particle. Our study demonstrates that plastic chemicals can drive microplastic toxicity. This highlights the importance of considering the individual chemical composition of plastics when assessing their environmental risks. Our results suggest that less studied polymer types, like PVC and PUR, as well as bioplastics are of particular toxicological relevance and should get a higher priority in ecotoxicological studies.

Publication date: 01/12/2020

Author: Lisa Zimmermann, Sarah Göttlich, Jörg Oehlmann, Martin Wagner, Carolin Völker

Environmental Pollution


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 870292.