A recent study carried out by Washington, DC-based non-profit organization Orb Media, with the help of scientists at the Fredonia State University of New York, has revealed worrying levels of microscopic plastic particles in 93 percent of some of the world’s leading brands of bottled water.
As would be expected, the World Health Organization (WHO) is not taking this lightly and has announced a review of the findings to assess the potential health risks from microplastics in bottled water, which is twice the level of similar particles found in tap water in a previous study.
Speaking to BBC News, WHO coordinator for global work on water and sanitation, Bruce Gordon, said that further research would be required to determine the harmful effects of the plastic contamination, and how, if at all, it affects the human body.
“When we think about the composition of the plastic, whether there might be toxins in it, to what extent they might carry harmful constituents, what actually the particles might do in the body – there’s just not the research there to tell us,” he said.
“We normally have a ‘safe’ limit but to have a safe limit, to define that, we need to understand if these things are dangerous, and if they occur in water at concentrations that are dangerous,” he also said, adding that he did not want to sound alarmist.
However, he does appreciate the fact that findings like these would “obviously” raise health concerns among people who would look to WHO to come up with answers and suggestions.
“The public are obviously going to be concerned about whether this is going to make them sick in the short term and the long term,” Gordon said.
The findings of the research team – which analyzed 259 bottles from 11 brands – covering 19 locations in nine countries (Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, the United States and Thailand) – revealed serious levels of microplastics, including polypropylene, nylon, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), in the bottled water samples.
With the help of a process known as the Nile Red method, the team was able to confirm an average 10.4 particles for every liter, each particle in excess of 100 microns in size.
However, when it came to smaller particles (between 6.5 and 100 microns in size), the per-liter average of 325 was way too high. In fact, one Nestlé Pure Life bottle had microplastic concentrations as high as 10,000 pieces per liter of water.
It must be mentioned, though, that the findings have not been scientifically reviewed; neither has the study been published in any science/medical journal.
Andrew Mayes – developer of the Nile Red technique, who is also a senior Chemistry lecturer at the University of East Anglia – has expressed his satisfaction on the way the method was applied, saying that he wouldn’t have done it any differently.
“This is pretty substantial,” said Mayes. “I’ve looked in some detail at the finer points of the way the work was done, and I’m satisfied that it has been applied carefully and appropriately, in a way that I would have done it in my lab.”
The technique identifies microplastics in water with the aid of a fluorescent dye that clings to these particles when released in water.
While the researchers were able to confirm through spectroscopy that the larger particles were indeed microplastics, the same was not possible for the smaller pieces, which Mayes referred to as “probable microplastic.”
For all we know, it may turn out that ingesting these microplastics pose no health risks at all, but the fact remains that the presence of microplastic in our drinking water, and that too in such large concentrations, is an indication that the plastic waste menace is overwhelming us.
Jane Muncke, chief scientist at Food Packaging Forum – a Zurich-based research organization – says that with so many unanswered questions and “unknowns” about the health implications of these particles, we have every reason to worry.
“What does it mean if we have this large amount of microplastic bits in food?” she said. “Is there some kind of interaction in the gastrointestinal tract with these microparticles … which then could potentially lead to chemicals being taken up, getting into the human body? We don’t have actual experimental data to confirm that assumption. We don’t know all the chemicals in plastics, even … There’s so many unknowns here. That, combined with the highly likely population-wide exposure to this stuff — that’s probably the biggest story here. I think it’s something to be concerned about.”
Here’s the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY of the study published by the Fredonia State University of New York
Tested 259 individual bottles from 27 different lots across 11 brands.
- Purchased from 19 locations in 9 countries
93% of bottled water showed some sign of microplastic contamination
- After accounting for possible background (lab) contamination
Average of 10.4 microplastic particles >100 um per liter of bottled water
- Confirmed by FTIR spectroscopic analysis
- Twice as much as within the previous study on tap water
Including smaller particles (6.5–100 um), an average of 325 microplastic particles per liter
- Identified via Nile Red tagging alone
- No spectroscopic confirmation
- Range of 0 to over 10,000 microplastic particles per liter
- 95% are particles between 6.5–100 um in size
For particles > 100 um:
- Fragments were the most common morphology (66%) followed by fibers
- Polypropylene was the most common polymer (54%) – Matches a common plastic used for the bottle cap
- 4% of particles showed presence of industrial lubricants
Data suggests contamination is at least partially coming from the packaging and/or the bottling process itself