Microplastics in drinking water — Huge problem needing a solution

Posted Sep 6, 2017 by Karen Graham
A new study looked at microplastics in drinking water in 14 countries globally. Besides giving us information on how widely spread these microplastics really are, the study also highlights the need for added studies on possible human health risks.
Earlier today, Digital Journal reported on a first-of-its-kind study that looked at microplastics in drinking water, carried out by researchers at the University of Minnesota and the State University of New York.
Microplastics are less than five mm long, about the size of a sesame seed. They come in the form of "microbeads" used in facial scrubs and toothpaste, and can also be created when larger pieces of plastic waste degrade.
Researchers examined drinking water samples collected during the first three months of the year from 14 countries including Kampala, Uganda; New Delhi, India; Jakarta, Indonesia; Beirut, Lebanon; Quito, Ecuador; several cities in the United States and in seven European countries.
Filtered particles from Arctic sea ice. Photo credit: Y.-Q. Wong and A. Khitun/Dartmouth College.
Filtered particles from Arctic sea ice. Photo credit: Y.-Q. Wong and A. Khitun/Dartmouth College.
Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth
What the researchers found made this writer grimace. Fully 83 percent of all the water samples contained microplastics. Even worse was the finding that "the highest density of plastic per volume of tap water was found in North America and the lowest densities were found, collectively, in seven European countries," wrote the team.
People may be ingesting between 3,000 and 4,000 microparticles of plastic from tap water every year. Now, that may not sound like very much, but that averages out, depending on how much water you drink, to about 10 to 14 plastic particles a day. But as the study also points out, "These plastic particles are in addition to plastics potentially consumed in other products, such as sea salt, beer, and seafood.
Microplastics are a pollutant of environmental concern
There have already been many studies on the impact of microplastics on the environment and in the seafood industry. Their presence in food destined for human consumption and in air samples has been reported. The big, emerging and serious problem is simply this - there are no studies on what kind of health effects they may have on humans.
Yoga pants and other comfortable clothing may contain microfibers that pollute our oeans.
Yoga pants and other comfortable clothing may contain microfibers that pollute our oeans.
Eli Christman / Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)
And the researchers in the drinking water study cited the need for human health studies. They called for further tests to gather more data about potential pollution sources and pathways, as well as the risks to human health. What is interesting, though is an abstract published last year in the National Center for Biotechnology Information journal.
Calling the impact of microplastics on human health an emerging field, complementary existing fields indicate potential particle, chemical, and microbial hazards. The writers say that although there is the potential for microplastics to impact human health, assessing current exposure levels and burdens is key.
And because there have been no studies, the field is wide open for innovative technologies that could be employed at either the faucet or in water treatment and wastewater treatment plants. The thing is, we know plastics are polluting, and more recently, that microplastics are polluting and harmful to marine life.
Salt farmers harvesting salt  Pak Thale  Ban Laem  Phetchaburi  Thailand.
Salt farmers harvesting salt, Pak Thale, Ban Laem, Phetchaburi, Thailand.
JJ Harrison (CC BY-SA 3.0)
However, while numerous companies have come up with various sorts of skimmers to aid in removing plastics from ocean beaches, harbors and the like, the microplastics are still slipping through. Of course, there is legislation pending in many countries, including the U.S. and U.K., that would ban the use of microplastics in cosmetics, but even if there were a ban, worldwide, we would still have to contend with clothing, laundry detergents and other products containing microplastics.
And here is something to think about — even if a complete ban on microplastics were to take effect, we would still have the millions and millions of tons of plastic products that give off microplastic particles to deal with. It is amazing how such a tiny particle can cause such a monstrous problem.