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In contrast to marine ecosystems, the toxicity impact of microplastics in freshwater environments is poorly understood. This contribution reviews the literature on the range of effects of microplastics across and between trophic levels within the freshwater environment, including biofilms, macrophytes, phytoplankton, invertebrates, fish and amphibians. While there is supporting evidence for toxicity in some species e.g. growth reduction for photoautotrophs, increased mortality for some invertebrates, genetic changes in amphibians, and cell internalization of microplastics and nanoplastics in fish; other studies show that it is uncertain whether microplastics can have detrimental long-term impacts on ecosystems. Some taxa have yet to be studied e.g. benthic diatoms, while only 12% of publications on microplastics in freshwater, demonstrate trophic transfer in foodwebs. The fact that just 2% of publications focus on microplastics colonized by biofilms is hugely concerning given the cascading detrimental effects this could have on freshwater ecosystem function. Multiple additional stressors including environmental change (temperature rises and invasive species) and contaminants of anthropogenic origin (antibiotics, metals, pesticides and endocrine disruptors) will likely exacerbate negative interactions between microplastics and freshwater organisms, with potentially significant damaging consequences to freshwater ecosystems and foodwebs.

Original publication




Journal article


Sci Total Environ

Publication Date



Aquatic toxicology, Food web, Multiple stressors, Nanoplastics, Water pollution