11/03/2022 - 12:00

Forrest takes war on plastics to UQ

11/03/2022 - 12:00

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Researchers may finally know the extent of microplastics concentration in the human body as a result of a new partnership between Minderoo Foundation and the University of Queensland.

Forrest takes war on plastics to UQ
Andrew Forrest observing work by University of Queensland researchers

Researchers may finally know the extent of microplastics concentration in the human body as a result of a new partnership struck between Minderoo Foundation and the University of Queensland.

That partnership, in which UQ will test human blood and tissue samples in an attempt to create an accurate measure of nanoplastics concentration in the human body, comes as part of broader efforts by Minderoo to highlight the extent of plastic pollution worldwide.

Mark Barnaba, deputy chair of Fortescue Metals Group, leads the foundation's No Plastic Waste initiative, which in June last year published its plastics wastemaker index in an attempt to highlight the extent of the problem.

Minderoo founder and chair Andrew Forrest today emphasised the value of UQ researchers having access to a lab with such low plastic contamination.

“Extensive testing of construction materials including paint, floor coverings and adhesives was conducted and as most of these materials contained plastics or plastic chemicals that can leach into the lab, hence it was built almost entirely out of welded stainless steel," he said.

“UQ’s world-leading researchers were carefully selected to lead this research as experts in the techniques to measure the mass of very small concentrations of different molecules within a sample, to conclusively detect and measure plastics in human tissue and fluids.”

Kevin Thomas, who leads the university's alliance for environmental health services, explained that scientists at present do not know if traces of nanoplastics can be found in urine, the body or the brain, or whether they can cause harm.

“Our team has been working tirelessly to develop methods that are sufficiently sensitive and robust to give us clear data to ensure plastic hasn’t entered the sample from the external environment," he said.

“For example, if we’re working on a tissue sample in an open lab where plastics and additives are present in the air, it could become contaminated during testing.

“Samples from the Sydney Brain Bank are transferred to the lab to test for plastics such as polyethylene, polypropylene, PVC, and additives including phthalates and bisphenols, all found in commonly used products.

“After this first phase of research is complete, we can then start to measure chemicals and plastics within humans accurately so we can determine whether nanoplastic particles are in humans or not and get more accurate measures of plastic chemicals.”

Mr Forrest's efforts on this front follow concerted attempts to give his business and philanthropic interests a distinctly greener hue than in years' past.

That includes through his speculative green energy outfit Fortescue Future Industries, which yesterday announced it had hired Reserve Bank of Australia deputy governor Guy Debelle as chief financial officer.

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