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Plastics: Health Research

Volume 826: debated on Monday 19 December 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to fund research into the health impact of plastic through a new National Plastic Health Impact Research Fund.

The Government are funding a broad portfolio of research in this area through UK Research and Innovation and the National Institute for Health and Care Research; both funders welcome applications for research into any aspect of human health. Since 2018 the Government have committed over £100 million for research and development and innovation support, to tackle the issues that arise from plastic waste.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and assurance that the private sector and trusts and others are investing in this area. But when almost four-fifths of people in this country have plastic particles in their blood, which means most of us in this Chamber if you think about it, and when these particles are associated with cancer, diabetes and other, serious, chronic illnesses, does the Minister accept that this really is a priority? Does he accept that a proportion of the Government’s R&D spending—we suggest 0.1%, which is hardly great—should be allocated as a priority to investigating the impact of plastic particles on human health, and how to tackle the problem?

I have had the opportunity to speak to the chief scientific officer in this space, so I am guided by the science here, and I have also heard the impact from the Food Standards Authority, which considers it unlikely that the presence of plastic particles in food would cause harm. Further research in this space will be reporting in March 2023, but currently there is limited evidence to suggest that there is any harm.

My Lords, the Environment Act includes the power to be able to charge for single-use items, including plastics, to reduce consumer consumption. Can the Minister tell the House whether or not the Government intend to use this power and, if so, when?

I am mindful that my brief as Health Minister is fairly large but maybe not quite that large. But I note that in this space we have already replaced plastic bags, very successfully introduced a usage charge, and reduced consumption by 95% in the main supermarkets, so that is a tool that we know works. But currently there is limited evidence suggesting that it is a health hazard.

My Lords, while the global production of plastics continues to grow, the literature tells us that there is still very limited information about their long-term health effects. As we are trying to shift behaviour so that people and businesses reduce their use of plastic, for a variety of reasons, would the Minister agree that more research into the health effects would be helpful to support that public awareness effort?

We have set up a research fund; as I say, £100 million has been spent around plastic waste in the last few years. Again, I have spoken to the chief scientific officers on exactly this, and if there are good research proposals in this space, they are ready to look, assess and commission them if they will be valuable here.

My Lords, air pollution is the largest environmental risk to public health. Can the Minister say what assessment has been made of the contribution to that risk by the burning of plastic in landfill?

Again, my understanding from the science is that that is not a concern here. The presence of nanoparticles in the bloodstream has not caused concern to date. However, again, if there are good research proposals in this space, that is exactly what the research council was set up to look at.

My Lords, the Minister has said a number of times that there is limited evidence, yet we know, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said, that there are microplastics in our blood. There is evidence that nanoplastics cause change and inflammation in skin and lung cells, and plastics also contain additives, including bisphenol A, phthalates and polychlorinated biphenyls, which are endocrine disruptors and alter reproductive activity. Is a lack of knowledge, in the light of the Government’s supposed attachment to the precautionary principle, an excuse for not acting while all these risks are clearly evident?

Again, the research bodies are very happy to look at any good proposals. The only place I would disagree with this is on whether you would want to ring-fence a certain amount to a space when you do not know whether there is a health risk there. Therefore, if there are good research proposals, we are definitely ready to take that forward. I will caution against some of the quotes where they are based on a sample size of 22 people, in terms of the common-sense study. That is why we place caution on this, but if there are good research proposals, I say: absolutely, please bring them forward.

My Lords, while welcoming the plastic packaging tax in April this year, I noted an alarming OECD report recently that plastic waste entering the oceans is set to treble in the next 40 years. What are our Government doing to fund credible plastic alternatives so as to mitigate the problems at source?

I understand that this is part of the £500 million Blue Planet Fund that we put in place to help developing countries support the marine environment, and we are a contracting party to the OSPAR convention to participate in marine-limited monitoring programmes.

As the Department of Health and Social Care moves towards prevention, is my noble friend the Minister aware of initiatives within the National Health Service and across the health and care system to reduce the use of plastic across our system?

I thank my noble friend. Yes, the NHS is committed to a 10% reduction in clinical single usage by 2045, and these plans are set out in the NHS long-term plan document, Delivering a Net Zero National Health Service.

My Lords, the Minister has said several times that there is no credible evidence that this is harmful. I just ask him to contemplate whether it really can be good for the human body to be pumped full of foreign material in this way. Would he have given the same answer in respect of smoking, which, when it was first promulgated and mass-marketed, was also seen as beneficial to health?

The phrase I used was that there is “limited evidence” in this space. I reiterate that if a good research proposal is put forward, funds are available there. The only point of difference on this is that I do not believe we should ring-fence a definite amount each year when the evidence does not yet exist that it is a health risk.

My Lords, the Minister suggested that his scientific advisors told him that there was no evidence. Finding “no evidence” does not scientifically prove that there is no evidence. It has been said several times that if a scientific proposal was put forward, it would be looked at. Accepting that plastic pollution is a problem, should the NIHR not put out tenders inviting research proposals?

Again, my wording was “limited evidence”. There are many demands. It feels as though every day I am up here being asked to spend money on something else. As a responsible Minister, I must prioritise spend in areas where it is needed. At the moment, I am being guided by the science, which tells me that there is very limited evidence in this space. If a good proposal is put forward, we will welcome it and look into it. Until then, this is not good use of public money.