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Microplastics are no small matter for Jeanette

Jeanette Rotchell's research into the biological effects of environmental contaminants at the molecular level, such as microplastics, has wide-ranging implications for wildlife and human health. She is working to ensure the right regulatory frameworks to help mitigate the effects. 

Jeanette and her team, comprising colleagues from the Department of Biological and Marine Sciences and Hull York Medical School, have discovered the presence of microplastics and other debris in our waterways, in shellfish and, latterly, even in our homes, posing potential health risks.

Microplastics are small plastic pieces, less than 5mm long, that come from a variety of sources, including from larger plastic debris that degrades into smaller and smaller pieces, and from microbeads. Microbeads are very tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic that are added to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes.  In addition, home furnishings and clothing shed small-sized fibres and these are likely responsible for the high levels of microparticles in the air in our homes.

Professor Jeanette Rotchell

Professor Jeanette Rotchell

Professor of Aquatic Toxicology

In June 2021, Jeanette organised and led a 3-day bilateral microplastic workshop, in collaboration with the Newton Fund and National Natural Science Foundation of China.  She was joined at the workshop by 30 early career researchers (ECRs), 15 each from the UK and China, to build a network of scientists who tackle together issues relating to microplastics.

It is becoming increasingly evident that global contamination of the marine environment by microplastic is impacting wildlife and its entry into the food chain is providing a pathway for the waste that we dispose of to be returned to us through our diet.
Jeanette Rotchell

Professor Jeanette Rotchell

Jeanette works with many external collaborators at other universities worldwide as well as regulatory authorities, and local government colleagues.  She was the project lead for ‘Sullied Sediments’, a wide-ranging partnership that included public, private and third sector organisations based in the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.   Last month, the Interreg Highlights blog published an article called ‘Driving a Tox-free Europe’. Jeanette was one of two lead contributors.  Some of her research has involved testing for the presence of pharmaceuticals in UK estuaries,  focusing on the Humber estuary. 

Jeanette is currently chairperson for the East and North Yorkshire Waterways Partnership.  

Sullied Sediments (Living with Water)

How did your interest in microplastics research start and what does your research tell us about where microplastics can be found?

My interest in microplastics began as an international collaboration with colleagues, Prof. Huahong Shi and Dr Jiana Li, from the State Key Lab for Estuarine and Coastal Research at East China Normal University who first highlighted the issue. We wanted to know if the microplastics they were finding in Chinese coastal waters and shellfish were at similar levels in UK coastal environments and in shellfish bought from supermarket shelves.

What were the major findings of your research into the presence of microplastics in mussels?

100 per cent of samples taken from UK waters and supermarket-bought products contained microplastics or other debris. For every 100g of mussels consumed, it is estimated there are approximately 70 pieces of microplastics. More particles were found in supermarket mussels which had been cooked or frozen, than in the freshly caught mussels.

What new evidence did your research generate?

This study provides further evidence of this route of exposure and we now need to understand the possible implications of digesting these very small levels. Continued research will hopefully drive effective human risk assessment.

Did you find evidence of other contaminants?

It is not just microplastics which need to come under the microscope. Of the debris found in mussels, the study showed around 50 per cent was made up of microplastics and 37 per cent from other debris including textiles such as rayon and cotton.  All the conversation is about microplastics, but textiles could also be worth investigation. 

Community Impact


Danopoulos, E., Jenner, L., Twiddy, M., & Rotchell, J. M. (2020). Microplastic contamination of seafood intended for human consumption: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Environmental Health Perspectives, 128(12), 126002-1-126002

Garcia, A., Suarez, D., Li, J., & Rotchell, J. (in press). A comparison of microplastic contamination in freshwater fish from natural and farmed sources Environmental science and pollution research

Danopoulos, E., Twiddy, M., & Rotchell, J. M. (2020). Microplastic contamination of drinking water: a systematic review. PLoS ONE, 15(7 July)

Letsinger, S., Kay, P., Rodríguez-Mozaz, S., Villagrassa, M., Barceló, D. and Rotchell, J.M. (2019). Spatial and temporal occurrence of pharmaceuticals in UK estuaries. Science of The Total Environment, 678, pp.74–84.