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Scientific Innovation >> Examples of our Scientific Innovations >> Tackling the Big Problem of Tiny Particles

Tackling the Big Problem of Tiny Particles

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Making microplastic testing commercially available

If not correctly recycled, plastic poses a major threat to our environment. Degrading into tiny particles, microplastics can remain in the environment for over hundreds, if not thousands, of years, infiltrating aquatic and marine ecosystems and contaminating the water we drink. Recognising the major global environmental problem that microplastics present, Eurofins is at the forefront of providing testing solutions to identify the prevalence of microplastics in our environment.

Microplastics are any particles of plastic fragment smaller than 5mm. Polluting our environment every day, microplastics contain or carry hazardous chemicals that have a negative impact on nature and human health, and so their ingestion through water, or foods such as fish or shellfish, is of particular concern. In 2018, The World Health Organization announced it was to launch a review into the potential risks of microplastic particles in drinking water.

Eurofins Norway is at the forefront of developing testing methods to optimise microplastic testing, by combining the standard FTIR microscopic method testing with Pyrolytic-GC-MS testing. By their very nature, microplastic particles are just that – micro. Microplastic particles can be filtered from clean liquid samples with a vacuum filter, but the accuracy required to identify these particles is time consuming. The team is developing an innovative and bespoke filtration process to enhance process capacity by up to 6 times, and enhance process speed, delivering results in a commercially viable turnaround time, where they can be applied to make a real difference.

Several methods can be used to identify individual microplastic polymers – the most common being dye imaging and NOAA methodology under FTIR spectroscopy and microscopy technologies. Eurofins SFA Laboratories, based in Wisconsin, is the first laboratory to make these analytical methods commercially available, offering testing across several matrices including marine and drinking water sources and finished bottled water. This lab is currently developing methods to determine microplastic contamination in other food matrices such as fish, shellfish, and aquatic plants like seaweed.

The Eurofins Group is currently undertaking research to better understand the threat that microplastics pose to the safety of our environment, utilising the testing methods developed by Eurofins Norway, to determine the prevalence of microplastics in ecosystems across the world.

The science behind

FTIR spectroscopy and microscopy analyses use infrared light to scan test samples and observe chemical properties. In the dye imaging method, microplastic particles in water absorb dye and glow under ultraviolet light, highlighting their presence. The NOAA Method identifies larger microplastic particles in water which is considered to be dirtier. The water undergoes chemical treatment, density separation, mass determination and possible spectroscopic investigation.

Pyrolytic-GC-MS testing utilises heat to decompose samples to produce smaller molecules which are then separated by gas chromatography and detected using mass spectrometry. Pyrolytic-GC-MS can be applied to insoluble and complex materials including plastics, and when combined with FTIR spectroscopy provides optimal results.