New Studies reveal that microplastic contamination has been found in tap water in countries around the world, these tiny plastic fibres are everywhere, not just in our oceans but on land too, leading to calls from scientists for urgent research on the implications for health. We urgently need to find out how they enter our food, air and tap water and what the effects are on all of us.
Scores of tap water samples from more than a dozen nations were analysed by scientists finding that overall, 83% of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibres.
We knew the oceans were awash with plastic. Brightly coloured and often floating, the debris from consumer society formed colossal, ugly swirls in the seas and littered even the remotest beaches from the Arctic to the deep Pacific. But the pollution of the land was hidden. Tap water is gathered from hills, rivers, lakes and wells, sampling the environment as it goes. It turns out that tiny fibres of plastic are everywhere.
European nations including the UK, Germany and France had the lowest contamination rate, but this was still 72%. The average number of fibres found in each 500ml sample ranged from 4.8 in the US to 1.9 in Europe.
A separate small study in the Republic of Ireland released in June also found microplastic contamination in a handful of tap water and well samples. “We don’t know what the [health] impact is and for that reason we should follow the precautionary principle and put enough effort into it now, immediately, so we can find out what the real risks are,” said Dr Anne Marie Mahon at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, who conducted the research.
Mahon said there were two principal concerns: very small plastic particles and the chemicals or pathogens that microplastics can harbour. “If the fibres are there, it is possible that the nanoparticles are there too that we can’t measure,” she said. “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.” The Orb analyses caught particles of more than 2.5 microns in size, 2,500 times bigger than a nanometre.
Microplastics can attract bacteria found in sewage, Mahon said: “Some studies have shown there are more harmful pathogens on microplastics downstream of wastewater treatment plants.”
Clean Ocean Foundation’s CEO John Gemmill also expressed concern at the potential impact of microplastics on the ocean from sewage. "At this stage we can’t measure either the quantity or the impact of these microplastics discharged from wastewater treatment plants in Australia. We do know from overseas studies that not all microplastic fibres are removed in most wastewater treatment plants are we are concerned that not enough is being done to address this issue."
Because of this potential "elephant in the pipeline" we see as of Clean Ocean Foundation’s critical roles is to explain to the unsuspecting public this unseen connection between outfalls from these facilities and our oceans health.
Plastic is a fantastic material, flexible and – unless burned – essentially indestructible. It is so useful that it now makes up about half of all human-related waste. But while humanity has realised its benefits it has yet to realise the cost: apart from the small proportion incinerated, “the vast majority of plastic ever made is still present in the environment in some form”, according a recent scientific review. That’s more than eight billion tonnes.
Plastics often contain a wide range of chemicals to change their properties or colour and many of these are toxic or hormone disruptors. Plastics can attract other pollutants too, including dioxins, metals and some pesticides. Microplastics have also been shown to attract microbial pathogens. The conditions in animal guts are also known to enhance the release of pollutants from plastics.
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.
This research led Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health at King’s College London, to tell a UK parliamentary inquiry in 2016: “If we breathe them in they could potentially deliver chemicals to the lower parts of our lungs and maybe even across into our circulation.” Having seen the Orb data, Kelly told the Guardian that research is urgently needed to determine whether ingesting plastic particles is a health risk.
How microplastics end up in drinking water is for now a mystery, but the atmosphere is one obvious source, 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 into the open air, Another huge unanswered question is how microplastics get into our water and food. A report from the UK’s Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management says the biggest proportion are fibres shed by synthetic textiles and tyre dust from roads, with more from the breakdown of waste plastics.
Plastic fibres may also be flushed into water systems, with a recent study finding that each cycle of a washing machine could release 700,000 fibres into the environment. Rains could also sweep up microplastic pollution, which could explain why the household wells used in Indonesia were found to be contaminated.
A lot of the microplastic debris is washed into wastewater treatment plants, where the filtering process does capture many of the plastic fragments. But about half the resulting sludge is ploughed back on to farmland across Europe and the US, according to recent research published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. That study estimates that up to 430,000 tonnes of microplastics could be being added to European fields each year, and 300,000 tonnes in North America.
Almost 300m tonnes of plastic is produced each year and, with just 20% recycled or incinerated, much of it ends up littering the air, land and sea. A report in July found 8.3bn tonnes of plastic has been produced since the 1950s, with the researchers warning that plastic waste has become ubiquitous in the environment.
Mahon said the new tap water analyses raise a red flag, but that more work is needed to replicate the results, find the sources of contamination and evaluate the possible health impacts
Like so many environmental problems – climate change, pesticides, air pollution – the impacts only become clear years after damage has been done. If we are lucky, the plastic planet we have created will not turn out to be too toxic to life. If not, cleaning it up will be a mighty task. Dealing properly with all waste plastic will be tricky: stopping the unintentional loss of microplastics from clothes and roads even more so and organisations like Clean Ocean Foundation who tackle these problems will need all the help they can get if these problems are to be addressed