Microplastics — extremely small pieces (less than 5 mm) of plastic debris resulting from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste — have been found in tap water around the globe, according to a new report by Orb Media, a D.C.-based nonprofit digital newsroom. The discovery has led to a call from the scientific community for urgent research on microplastics’ implications for human health.
Designed by Dr. Sherri Mason of the State University of New York at Fredonia and Elizabeth Wattenberg at the University of Minnesota, School of Public Health, the tap water study screened 159 half liter drinking water samples from 14 countries: Cuba, Ecuador, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Lebanon, Slovakia, Switzerland, Uganda, the UK and the US. Overall, 83 percent of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibers.
European countries demonstrated the lowest level of contamination, though this was still 72 percent. The average number of microplastics found in each 500ml sample ranged from 1.9 in Europe to 4.8 in the US.
On the other end of the spectrum, the US had the highest contamination rate, with 94 percent of samples (which were taken from EPA headquarters, Congress buildings and Trump Tower in New York) containing plastic fibers. Lebanon and India also demonstrated exceptionally high contamination levels.
To date, similar studies have largely focused on plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and how humans are consuming microplastics via contaminated seafood. Invisibles: The Plastic Inside US further sheds light on the extent of the plastic pollution problem. Significant data exists demonstrating the impacts of microplastics on wildlife, but at this point in time the implications for human health are unknown.
“Scientists say they don’t really know how these microplastics reach our taps or what the health risks might be. But microplastics have been show to absorb toxic chemicals from the marine environment and then release them when consumed by fish and mammals. I am concerned by the implications of our research. At the very least, I hope that our work triggers large scale, global research on plastic contamination and the ramifications for human health — particularly that of children,” said Molly Bingham, Founder and CEO of Orb Media.
Bottled water doesn’t offer a solution either, as samples of commercial bottled water tested in the Orb study were also contaminated with microplastics.
“Chemicals from plastics are a constant part of our daily diet. We generally assume the water bottle holding that pure spring water, the microwave-safe plastic bowl we prepare our meals in, or the styrofoam cup holding a hot drink is there protecting our food and drinks. Rather than acting as a completely inert barrier, these plastics are breaking down and leaching chemicals, including endocrine-disrupting plasticizers like BPA or phthalates, flame retardants, and even toxic heavy metals that are all absorbed into our diets and bodies,” said Scott Belcher, Ph.D., a research professor at the North Carolina State University.