Quantifying the importance of plastic pollution for the dissemination of human pathogens: The challenges of choosing an appropriate 'control' material



Metcalf R, Oliver DM, Moresco V & Quilliam RS (2022) Quantifying the importance of plastic pollution for the dissemination of human pathogens: The challenges of choosing an appropriate 'control' material. Science of The Total Environment, 810, Art. No.: 152292.

Discarded plastic wastes in the environment are serious challenges for sustainable waste management and for the delivery of environmental and public health. Plastics in the environment become rapidly colonised by microbial biofilm, and importantly this so-called ‘plastisphere’ can also support, or even enrich human pathogens. The plastisphere provides a protective environment and could facilitate the increased survival, transport and dissemination of human pathogens and thus increase the likelihood of pathogens coming into contact with humans, e.g., through direct exposure at beaches or bathing waters. However, much of our understanding about the relative risks associated with human pathogens colonising environmental plastic pollution has been inferred from taxonomic identification of pathogens in the plastisphere, or laboratory experiments on the relative behaviour of plastics colonised by human pathogens. There is, therefore, a pressing need to understand whether plastics play a greater role in promoting the survival and dispersal of human pathogens within the environment compared to other substrates (either natural materials or other pollutants). In this paper, we consider all published studies that have detected human pathogenic bacteria on the surfaces of environmental plastic pollution and critically discuss the challenges of selecting an appropriate control material for plastisphere experiments. Whilst it is clear there is no ‘perfect’ control material for all plastisphere studies, understanding the context-specific role plastics play compared to other substrates for transferring human pathogens through the environment is important for quantifying the potential risk that colonised plastic pollution may have for environmental and public health.

Biofilm; Environmental risk; Experimental design; Human health; Microplastics

Science of The Total Environment: Volume 810

FundersNERC Natural Environment Research Council and NERC Natural Environment Research Council
Publication date01/03/2022
Publication date online09/12/2021
Date accepted by journal05/12/2021
PublisherElsevier BV

People (3)


Miss Rebecca Metcalf
Miss Rebecca Metcalf

Tutor, Biological and Environmental Sciences

Dr David Oliver
Dr David Oliver

Associate Professor, Biological and Environmental Sciences

Professor Richard Quilliam
Professor Richard Quilliam

Professor, Biological and Environmental Sciences

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