The US had the highest rate, with 94% of tap water samples taken from various sites around the country contaminated with plastic particles.
Sure we’ve got plastic in the ocean and marine animals. We’ve got plastic compounds on our plates thanks to the fish that consume it and we’ve even got bits of plastic in our salt. Plastic, it’s what’s for dinner! And now to top it all off, it’s invading our tap water as well.
Damian Carrington at The Guardian reports on an investigation by the non-profit news organization, Orb Media, finding microplastic contamination in tap water in more than a dozen countries around the globe. In total, 83 percent of the samples were found to be contaminated with plastic fibers. Which, given its ubiquity in the environment, sadly may not be that surprising. Carrington writes:
The scale of global microplastic contamination is only starting to become clear, with studies in Germany finding fibres and fragments in all of the 24 beer brands they tested, as well as in honey and sugar. In Paris in 2015, researchers discovered microplastic falling from the air, which they estimated deposits three to 10 tonnes of fibres on the city each year, and that it was also present in the air in people’s homes.
For the Orb research, scientists tested 159 samples from countries near and far, including the United States, Europe countries, Uganda, Ecuador and Indonesia. The testing was done at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, using a standard technique that ensures no outside contamination would be present. The analyses measured particles of more than 2.5 microns in size (one micron equals 1 / 25400 inch).
With an average of 83 percent of samples harboring plastic, the U.S. fared the worst with a whopping contamination rate of 94 percent. And it’s not like the samples were taken from sketchy locations; plastic fibers were found in tap water coming from places like Congress buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, and Trump Tower in New York. (OK, maybe a little sketchy, but you know…)
Lebanon and India had the next highest rates, Carrington reports, with the UK, Germany and France having the lowest rates – though still an abysmal 72 percent.
The average number of fibers found in each 500ml (16.9 ounces) sample was between 4.8 in the US to 1.9 in Europe.
While the source of plastic pollution in the ocean is pretty obvious, how these microplastics are ending up in our drinking water is not so clear. The atmosphere is one obvious source, notes Carrington, “with fibres shed by the everyday wear and tear of clothes and carpets. Tumble dryers are another potential source, with almost 80% of US households having dryers that usually vent to the open air.”
“We really think that the lakes [and other water bodies] can be contaminated by cumulative atmospheric inputs,” says reaseracher on another study, Johnny Gasperi, at the University Paris-Est Créteil. “What we observed in Paris tends to demonstrate that a huge amount of fibres are present in atmospheric fallout.”
Washing machines as well are likely releasing all kinds of plastic fiber into the water, with one study finding that a single wash cycle can deliver 700,000 fibers into the environment.
While photos of sea creatures tangled up in plastic trash has become the rallying cry for plastic pollution, understandably and rightly so; it’s the unseen contamination that is potentially so deleterious for us. There are the tiny particles, of course, but there are the chemicals and/or pathogens that microplastics also have to offer.
“If the fibres are there, it is possible that the nanoparticles are there too that we can’t measure,” says Anne Marie Mahon at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology who has conducted research on the topic. “Once they are in the nanometre range they can really penetrate a cell and that means they can penetrate organs, and that would be worrying.”
Microplastics can attract bacteria found in sewage, and can contain and absorb toxic chemicals that can be released in the body.
Prof Richard Thompson, at Plymouth University, UK, told Orb: “It became clear very early on that the plastic would release those chemicals and that actually, the conditions in the gut would facilitate really quite rapid release.”
It’s all an enormous mess. Water treatment systems don’t filter drinking water to the degree that microplastics would be caught. Bottled water is not immune, as microplastics were found in bottled water samples tested as well. And spring water may not be any better off. The samples from Beirut, Lebanon were from natural springs; 94 percent of the samples were contaminated.
We write about plastic almost daily here on TreeHugger, and we’re not alone in our concern. Carrington cites another study, noting that 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been created since the 1950s, with the authors warning of a potentially dire future.
“We are increasingly smothering ecosystems in plastic,” says study leader Roland Geyer, from the University of California and Santa Barbara, “and I am very worried that there may be all kinds of unintended, adverse consequences that we will only find out about once it is too late.”
I always like to end gloomy stories like this with some kind of positive action or proactive workaround ideas, but honestly, I'm at a loss here. The best I can offer is we all need to be supporting research that is finding the sources of contamination like this and looking closely at the health impacts. We need to encourage better waste management, and most importantly, we need to be checking our own plastic use and habits to ensure that we're not adding to the problem. As Orb suggests, "The only way to keep plastic out of the air, water, and soil is to radically rethink its design, uses, sale, and disposal."
Plenty of tips in the related stories below.