This could mean we're drinking our plastic waste.
It seems that no part of the planet is safe from the scourge that is microplastics. Not only are they found floating in the air and in deep ocean trenches, but now a study from the University of Illinois has found that underground aquifers, which supply one-quarter of the world's population with drinking water, are contaminated, too.
The researchers took 17 groundwater samples from wells and springs. As a press release explains, 11 came from a highly fractured limestone aquifer near the St. Louis metropolitan area and six from an aquifer containing much smaller fractures in rural northwestern Illinois.Every samples but one contained microplastic particles, with a maximum concentration of 15 particles per litre. These concentrations are said to be comparable to those of surface water concentrations found in the rivers and streams in the Chicago area.
How does an underground aquifer get contaminated? Study co-author John Scott explained that "groundwater flows through the cracks and voids in limestone, sometimes carrying sewage and runoff from roads, landfills and agricultural areas into the aquifers below."
Because the samples also contained traces of pharmaceuticals and other household contaminants, it seems likely that the particles originated in household septic systems. In Scott's words,
"Imagine how many thousands of polyester fibers find their way into a septic system from just doing a load of laundry. Then consider the potential for those fluids to leak into the groundwater supply, especially in these types of aquifers where surface water interacts so readily with groundwater."
The researchers say that the findings cannot be interpreted in great detail, as there is very little data on microplastics in groundwater. Yessenia Funes wrote for Earther, "We still don’t know much about the impacts of microplastics on our bodies, so there’s no concentration that’s deemed unsafe or illegal."
Tim Hoellein, biology professor and study co-author said,
"I am not convinced we have a frame of reference to state expectations or bounds on what is considered low or high levels. Our questions are still basic – how much is there and where is it coming from?"
There's something deeply disturbing about the thought of drinking plastic waste in a glass of water. It goes to show how Earth's systems are deeply interconnected and how there is no 'away'; just because waste is out of sight does not mean it's not there, and it will come back to haunt us.
It's more important than ever to support research in this area and to take personal steps to minimize our impact, whether it's buying all-natural fabrics instead of synthetics, washing clothes less frequently, taking steps to capture microfiber waste in the washing machine, and hang-drying.