Plastic debris found in tap water, beer, and sea salt

pint of beer
CC BY 2.0 Alan Levine

You may think you're ingesting a safe, clean product, but you're really putting synthetic microfibers into your body.

It is one thing to hear about plastic pollution in oceans, lakes, and waterways; it's altogether another to learn that plastic is in the food, seasonings, and beverages we're consuming. A new open-access study, published in PLOS last week, has delved into this disturbing reality of our polluted planet, examining the precise quantities of plastic particles found in tap water, beer, and sea salt.

The researchers analyzed 159 samples of tap water sourced from 14 countries, 12 brands of beer brewed using water from the Great Lakes, and 12 brands of commercial sea salt, purchased in the U.S. but produced internationally.

Tap water was found to have the highest level of plastic contamination (81 percent of the samples contained debris), mostly in the form of microfibers. "The highest mean for any country was found in the U.S. with 9.24 particles/litre while the four lowest means were from European Union (EU) nations."

Plastic debris was found in all 12 brands of beer that were tested. These breweries draw their water from the Great Lakes via municipal tap water, so these sources were also tested.

"While both the municipal tap water and the beers analyzed all contained anthropogenic particles, there seemed to be no correlation between the two, which would seem to indicate that any contamination within the beer is not just from the water used to brew the beer itself."

Beer from national brands tended to have less plastic, likely because it's filtered more to prolong the shelf life, whereas artisanal brewers avoid excessive filtering to preserve the experience.

Finally, plastic debris was found in all 12 brands of commercial sea salt that were tested. These came from international markets, purchased in the U.S., and showed a great range in contamination levels, with anywhere from 46.7 to 806 particles/kg.

This study is important because it addresses a data gap in the research on plastic fibers. Most research to date has been done on beads and fragments, but this study has revealed that fibers need far more attention, especially now that they are in our food. The toxic nature of plastic is concerning. From the study's introduction:

"Plastics are hydrophobic and have been known to adsorb chemicals from the environment... some of which are known reproductive toxicants and carcinogens. Plastic can also adsorb metals and bacteria, sometimes at concentrations many times higher than their immediate surroundings. Furthermore, there is evidence that once ingested some of these organic chemicals can desorb in the guts of animals. Plastics can also leach synthetic additives, such as phthalates, alkylphenols, and bisphenol A."

The concern with plastic contamination is mainly in its accumulation. Tap water and salt, in particular, are part of a normal, healthy diet, and cannot be eliminated from one's diet in an attempt to reduce plastic exposure. Beer, on the other hand, can be reduced, although many would argue this negatively affects quality of life! It's a deeply distressing situation in which to find ourselves, and a powerful reminder of the importance of changing our consumer habits to move away from plastic use wherever possible.

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