NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

New Oceans and Human Health Centers To Address Microplastics Exposure

A fish swims in the sea surrounded by plastic pollution.
Fish swim among plastic pollution in the sea.

Photo:  Rich Carey/Shutterstock

NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are jointly funding four new research centers and renewing two centers to better understand how ocean-related exposures affect people’s health. 

To address plastics and other problems that could affect human health, the new Centers for Oceans and Human Health will tackle marine-related health research. Each center will focus on a different aspect of the interplay between environmental science, climate change and human health in the ocean or Great Lakes. [See sidebar below]

Together, the two agencies plan to invest more than $42 million over five years for this program, continuing a two-decade long collaboration. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) administers the centers at NIH and supports individual research projects.

Head shot of Dzierlenga with trees behind
Dr. Anika Dzierlenga

Millions of tons of small pieces of plastic, referred to as microplastics, are finding their way into the world’s oceans. These microplastics, ranging from the size of the width of a pencil to smaller than a sesame seed, often get eaten by fish and shellfish and are passed to humans through seafood consumption. They also act as microscopic sponges, attracting, concentrating and carrying pollutants into new environments. These plastic particles and other factors, including a warming climate and more extreme weather events, are affecting the health of our waterways and, in turn, human health.

“We know very little about what these microplastics or even smaller pieces of plastics, known as nanoplastics, can do to human health in the short or long term, or even what they can do to the health of the sea turtles and other animals that live in the ocean,” said Dr. Anika Dzierlenga, NIEHS program lead.

Nanoplastics, once inside the body, may leach harmful chemicals that may impact development, reproduction and immune response.

“The connection among ocean pollution, climate change and human health are problems that we are only beginning to understand,” Dzierlenga said. “People rely on oceans and lakes for jobs, food, tourism, recreation. These centers will help bring researchers and community groups together to study and take action to protect public health in coastal regions and around the Great Lakes.”

NIEHS-NSF Oceans and Human Health Center Awardees

The Centers for Oceans and Human Health foster interdisciplinary collaborations among biomedical researchers, physical and oceanographic scientists, and community partners. These projects are newly funded:

North Carolina State University

North Carolina Center for Coastal Algae, People and Environment will help lay the groundwork for how cyanobacterial (blue-green algae) blooms in estuaries or coastal waters impact seafood safety and public health. This research will help inform guidelines for the safe consumption of water and seafood.

University of California San Diego

Scripps Center for Oceans and Human Health will evaluate factors contributing to seafood safety concerns including impact from climate and weather, distribution of toxic chemicals across the aquatic food-source chain, the role of the marine microbiome in toxin metabolism, and animal and human response to toxic chemicals.

University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology

Lake Ontario Center for Microplastics and Human Health in a Changing Environment will focus solely on plastic pollution and microplastics. Researchers will study the life cycle of plastic in Lake Ontario as it pertains to ecological and human health. The aim is to prevent negative health effects of microplastics in the Great Lakes region, which serves as a critical resource for more than 30 million people.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health funding has been renewed in 2024 and will build off its prior research to address how a changing climate could influence harmful algal bloom (HAB) dynamics and human exposure to HAB toxins, a serious and global human health threat. The center will also work to improve public awareness and develop educational materials for K-12 classrooms and for health care providers.

NIEHS and NSF expect to make two additional awards soon.

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

Published 25 times each year, it comes out on payday Fridays.

Assistant Editor: Eric Bock (link sends e-mail)

Staff Writer: Amber Snyder (link sends e-mail)