Our use of plastics in everyday items and manufacturing processes has resulted in a deluge of slowly degradable materials entering our environment and our food chain. As plastics breakdown into tiny particles (<5 mm diameter) the consequences on human, animal and ecosystem health need to be studied.
As the world leader in serving science it’s our mission to enable customers to make the world healthier, cleaner and safer; which means providing education and consultation to customers looking to identify and analyze microplastics. Learn about our FTIR and Raman spectroscopy solutions that can help you identify, characterize, and quantify microplastics from a variety of sample sources (bottled water, ocean water, industry waste streams) without being a spectroscopy expert.
Register for this on-demand virtual event series and hear from renowned analytical experts as they explore the latest research and analytical tools.
Beaches, clothing, bottled water, fish, beer, the air and honey all have one thing in common. They each contain microplastics.
Less than 5 millimeters in size , these confounding microparticles are an urgent concern as they invade food chains and slip through purification systems undetected. Microplastics are small plastic fibers and particles that originate from everyday objects. Sources  of these microplastics include:
- Tire dust
- Plastic litter ( bags, bottles, straws)
- Personal care products (microbeads)
Of the tested tap water worldwide, 83% is polluted with microplastic fibers as small as 1/10th of a millimeter . These fibers are dispersed into the environment through everyday activities such as doing laundry, swimming, walking in the streets, or cleaning your face. These microparticulates then end up in freshwater lakes, rivers, municipal treatment plants, and ultimately tap water. These sources affect not only our oceans, lakes, and springs, but the life of organisms that inhabit them. Figure 1 shows an analysis of microplastics from a sample of ocean water collected from the Pellestrina beach in the Lagoon of Venice. All three particles identified in box B have a size between 5 to 10 μm. The yellow particulates were identified as polypropylene, and the grey particulate was identified as PV23 Hoechst Laser pigment.
Entering your local convenience store, you assume purified bottled water is free from harmful particles. Surprisingly, bottled water is no exception to microplastics contamination and, in fact, has higher contamination than tap water. Research at the State University of New York at Fredonia showed that 93% of tested bottled water had microplastics contamination . This has prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to evaluate all available research on microplastics to help understand whether a lifetime of eating and drinking microplastics could have an effect on human health. Unfortunately, microplastics are not being detected in water purification systems, so they can come from the tap water sources as well as being created from the machinery during the bottling process. This presents a potential liability risk for beverage companies who are just now exploring how best to measure microplastics in their products.
The impact to human health of microplastics contamination is currently unknown as the discovery is relatively new. This means we must find ways to study the composition and prevalence of microplastics as well as their biological and toxicological effects on humans.
As plastic waste breaks down in our environment, it becomes smaller and smaller and turns into fibers. These fibers can absorb toxic chemicals found in the water, such as plant pesticides or pollution from commercial ships. The microplastics then enter the food chain as organisms consume them, transferring these toxins into their bodies. These toxins translocate up the food chain until they are served on our plates. 
Although the impact of this toxin transmission from microplastics to fish to humans has yet to be studied, we do know the health effects toxins have on fish and small organisms. The consequences of toxin-sorbed microplastics ingested by fish can be two fold; exposure can be physical, causing tissue damage, or they can be chemical, resulting in bioaccumulation that causes liver toxicity. [2, 7]
To distinguish these microparticles, the current strategy is to use a stereo-microscope and tediously separate microplastics from other materials.  Unfortunately this visual method is prone to errors due to the extremely small size (<1 mm) of microplastics and the potential for human error and sample contamination. This near-impossible and time-consuming identification process leaves us with a challenging problem.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a Microplastics Expert Workshop in June 2017 to identify and prioritize the information needed to understand the risks and impact that microplastics pose to human life and our ecosystems. Of all the needs identified for understanding microplastics risks, the expert group agreed that we need to standardize sample collection, extraction, quantification and characterization of polymers at the micron scale (≥1 µm and ≤1 mm in size). These methods would need to be reproducible, representative, accurate, and precise, while following appropriate quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) practices. Then the information obtained on microplastic shape, polymer type, size, chemical composition and number of particles in a sample can be used to determine what is truly relevant to human and ecological health. The group supported using complementary analytical methods with visual methods and recommends instruments that can accommodate automation and calibration to assure reproducible results from person to person. 
Raman and infrared microscopy can provide the proper identification of a wide range of microplastic particles (1-5000 µm diameter) collected from environmental, industrial, municipal or consumer-product samples. These techniques use the ability of light to interact with molecules causing them to vibrate at given frequencies. As a result, a spectrum (or a peak pattern of absorbed or emitted frequencies - Figure 2) can provide a “molecular fingerprint” of a microparticulate, providing the identity of its components.
For particles >1 μm, the Thermo Scientific DXR3xi Raman Imaging Microscope offers the analytical power to discern microplastics from other contaminants with high-spatial resolution down to 0.5 µm. The multivariate analysis algorithms of the Thermo Scientific OMNIC Software allows for spectral identification across a spectral library of plastics and polymers. The DXR3xi Raman Microscope has autoalignment and calibration capabilities to ensure accurate measurements and consistency between operators, supporting recommendations made by the EPA working group. This microscope quickly images large surface areas across the sample filter, making it a fast, reliable method for comparing multiple particulates and identifying their chemical components. For microplastic particles >10 μm, the Thermo Scientific Nicolet iN10 MX FTIR Imaging Microscope offers similar chemical imaging capabilities with speed and efficiency.
The sample workflow diagram in Figure 3 shows a typical process, from sample preparation to microplastics analysis.
Posters from Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC)
|Name||Acronym||Typical Density (g/cm3)|
Find peer reviewed publications using FTIR and Raman spectroscopy for microplastics analysis.
|Title||Year||Publication and Link||Preview Text|
|Organic pollutants in microplastics from two beaches of the Portuguese coast||2010||Marine Pollution Bulletin (Volume 60, issue 11, pp 1988-1992)||“Identification of polymers was made according to standards in the Nicolet spectrometer database”|
|Occurrence of microplastics in the coastal marine environment: First observation on sediment of China||2015||Marine Pollution Bulletin (Volume 98, issue 1-2, pp 274-280)||“Microplastics were identified by micro-FTIR (Nicolet iN10, USA) that equipped a nitrogen …”|
|Sampling, Sorting, and Characterizing Microplastics in Aquatic Environments with High Suspended Sediment Loads and Large Floating Debris||2018||JOVE||“Used the Nicolet iS10 FTIR Spectrometer to analyze suspect microplastics. Used the Nicolet iN5 FTIR microscope to analyze suspect microplastics.”|
|Evidence of microplastics pollution in coastal beaches and waters in southern Sri Lanka||2018||Marine Pollution Bulletin (Volume 137, pp 277-284)||“Nicolet iS5 FTIR spectrometer collected 16 scans per sample at a resolution of 4.0 cm−1 …”|
|Microplastics in commercial bivalves from China||2015||Environmental Pollution (Volume 207, pp 190-195)||“Verification of microplastics using μ-FT-IR. The identification was conducted out with a μ-FT-IR microscope (Thermo Nicolet iN10 MX)…”|
|A comparison of microscopic and spectroscopic identification methods for analysis of microplastics in environmental samples||2015||Marine Pollution Bulletin (Volume 93, pp 202-209)||“Microplastic particles on the filter paper from both the SML water and beach sand samples … each square were selected and immediately identified using the FT-IR (Thermo Nicolet FT-IR spectrometer…”|
|Microplastics in the benthic invertebrates from the coastal waters of Kochi, Southeastern Arabian Sea||2018||Marine Pollution Bulletin (Volume 100, pp 70-81)|
“Raman spectra were obtained via spectral measurements on a DXR Raman microscope (Thermo …)
|Plastics and microplastics on recreational beaches in Punta del Este (Uruguay): Unseen critical residents?||2016||Environmental Pollution (Volume 218, pp 931-941)||“…for polymer identification using a Raman imaging microscope (Thermo Scientific DXRxi Raman Microscope)”|
Webinar length: 20 minutes
This webinar covers why microplastics have become an important research topic for environmental scientists and a concern for food and beverage manufacturers. An explanation of advantages and limitations are for spectroscopy-based analytical methods will be discussed. Specifically microspectroscopy techniques (Raman and FTIR microscopy) as well as attenuated total reflectance (ATR) spectroscopy provide options for identifying unknown particles by characterizing their composition, size, and quantity. Resources are available to help make decisions on which system is best for a given application and budget.
Who should watch
Simon holds a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from the University of Durham, UK. He has over 25 years’ experience in applications, product development and marketing and has a passion for solving analytical problems with spectroscopy.
Webinar length: 27 minutes
In this webinar you'll see how environmental researcher, Fabinana Corami, PhD, from the CMR-ISP, Institute of Polar Sciences Venice, Italy, analysis environmental samples like water, sediment and biota for microplastic contamination.
Webinar length: 25 minutes
In this webinar, Dr. Elke Fischer will take you through how she and her team analyze and identify microplastics in limnic ecosystems.
Webinar length: 37 minutes
In this webinar environmental researcher, Fabinana Corami, PhD, from the CMR-ISP, Institute of Polar Sciences Venice, Italy highlights the purification, characterization, and quantitative analysis of microplastic fibers found in sea water.
Dr. Yutaka Kameda is an Associate Professor at the Chiba Institute of Technology, located in Narashino, Japan. With a masters degree in Water Engineering, and a PhD in Environment and Resources Engineering, he’s been able to work with multiple private and publicly funded organizations all aimed at assessing environmental impact with a focus on water.
In this interview you’ll hear about his environmental research as well as his thoughts on the current and future state of this research area.
See Dr. Kameda's bio
What is your opinion of the current state of microplastics pollution as a problem and how much work is needed to better understand the extent of the problem?
The microplastics issue is at the stage where investigations have been implemented worldwide in earnest this year. Big projects have already launched to standardize measurements/determine finer microplastics for a unified analytical solution. In addition, the research of degradation of conventional plastics or biodegradable plastics in the environment field have also been started. Perhaps, a related report will publish in a couple of years as well, then I expect specific regulations will be launched globally.
What is your research focus?
- Analytical solution development and monitoring for ultra-fine microplastics (0.1 μm to 20 μm) in the environment
- Elucidation of sources and movement mechanisms and weathering phenomena of global microplastics in the ocean, including ecological impact assessment
What sinks (lakes/oceans/etc…) are you evaluating?
Target samples are: tap water, seawater, sandy beach, food, biodegradable plastic, and living drainage
What specifically are you trying to understand?
I am interested in the following points
- Determining the concentration of microplastics in the ocean including very fine particles in 0.1-20 μm size range and the prediction of future concentration as well as particle size distribution.
- Determination of the degree of weathered microplastics
What does your sampling and analysis workflow look like? What are the key challenges associated with trying to analyze microplastics in environmental samples?
At present, development of a solution for sampling and analyzing >20 μm microplastics has been completed, it is now in the commercialization stage. Detailed methods will be published soon, but a brief explanation is as follows,
- Collect samples using plastic-free equipment
- Pretreatment using hydrogen peroxide, sodium iodide and enzyme
- Automatic analysis by Thermo Scientific Nicolet iN10 MX Infrared Imaging Microscope with automatic particle analysis software. For particles <20 μm, this is currently my key research. My problems in method development are likely to be resolved. I am currently searching for a Raman supplier as a partner for the development. I am planning to develop the analysis method with Raman into 2021.
What kind of instrumentation do you use? How useful is it to have more automated solutions for microplastics location and identification?
I am using a Nicolet iN10MX Microscope to define particle size, identification and quantification with OMNIC Picta software.
What is your opinion on the current state of regulations? Are you engaged with regulatory leaders? What are your expectations of national and international regulations on microplastics pollution and monitoring?
- Microplastic contamination and pollution characteristics are still not known. Sometimes I work with key regulators. In the future, I expect the investigation of microplastics, as well as policies to control microplastic pollution, will be implemented as follows:
- The environmental surveys will be conducted for microplastics down to a limit of 20 or 0.2 μm particles (currently the limit can be >300 μm).
- Polymers that are highly toxic in the environment and that are likely to exist as microparticles in the environment may be banned.
- It will be recommended to use and adopt biodegradable plastics. At that time, the environmental degradation test would be revised to measure the particle size distribution. As a result, with these new definitions, conventional biodegradable plastics may not meet the requirements.
- The polymers of microcapsules used in daily necessities are also likely to be replaced with new materials.
1998 – 2000: Hokkaido University, PhD in Environment and Resources Engineering
1995 – 1997: Tohoku University, MSc in Water Engineering
1991– 1994: Tohoku University, BSc in Civil Engineering
2012 – Present: Associate professor of creative engineering, Chiba Institute of Technology
2007 – 2012: Researcher in Water Environment, Center for Environment Science in Saitama
2006 – 2007: Researcher, Public Works Research Institute, Japanese government
1992 – 2005: COE fellow, Environmental Risk lab, Yokohama National University
Getting supplies and samples ready for microparticle analysis can be cumbersome. These microparticle analysis sample preparation kits are here to help streamline the process, no matter your sample type.
|FTIR + ATR||FTIR + Small Spot ATR||Point-and-Shoot FTIR Microscope||FTIR Imaging Microscope||Raman Microscope||Raman Imaging Microscope|
|Nicolet Summit PRO FTIR Spectrometer and Everest ATR Accessory||SurveyIR Microspectroscopy Accessory + Nicolet Summit PRO FTIR Spectrometer||Nicolet iN5 IR Microscope + Nicolet iS20 FTIR Spectrometer||Nicolet iN10 MX IR Imaging Microscope||DXR3 Raman Microscope||DXR3xi Raman Imaging Microscope|
|Measurable Particle Size|
|Manual Sample Placement Only||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||No||No|
|Automated Analysis of Filters||No||No||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Immunity to Sample Fluorescence||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||No|
Hear from Jennifer Lynch, PhD of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Hawaii Pacific University, on her experience researching plastic contaminants in the Pacific Ocean. She provides her perspectives on microplastics pollution: its impact on local economies, the funding shortage, and technical challenges associated with microplastic identification. She also shares research group's practice on using FTIR and FTIR microscope for microplastics and mesoplastics identification.
Infrared spectroscopy can provide valuable information about the origin of plastics particles, adsorbed chemicals and possible toxicity found in our environment.