By Kim Robson:
Whenever I see that scene in The Graduate where a young man is urged to invest in plastics, I want to shout at the screen, “Noooo!” The good news is that we’re recycling more and more plastic every year, even utilizing reclaimed plastic in 3D printing. The bad news is that we’re not capturing nearly enough. We’ve got plastic bag bans, plastic in the ocean and microbeads in the Great Lakes. Those microbeads are even in glitter, which every mom knows gets everywhere. Microplastic particles are even getting into the fish we eat.
Seeing sea life strangled by plastic pollution is heart-wrenching, understandably so; but unseen microplastic contamination is so much worse. The particles are microscopic but still contain and absorb dangerous chemicals and/or pathogens and release them into our bodies. Microplastics also can attract bacteria from sewage.
Damian Carrington of The Guardian writes, “The scale of global microplastic contamination is only starting to become clear, with studies in Germany finding [plastic] fibers 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 ten tons of fibers on the city each year, and that it was also present in the air in people’s homes.”
The latest findings show that plastic is now getting into our drinking water. An investigation by Orb Media, a nonprofit news organization, tested tap water from more than a dozen countries including the United States, Europe, Uganda, Ecuador and Indonesia. Researchers collected 159 samples from countries around the globe, then tested them at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Scientists used a technique that ensured no outside contamination would taint the samples. The analyses measured particles of more than 2.5 microns in size (one micron equals 1/25,400 inch).
Overall, they found microplastic fibers contaminating 83% of the samples taken. In the United States, it was a whopping 94%. Lebanon and India fared the worst, while the UK, Germany and France had the lowest rates at 72% — still horrifying. These samples weren’t taken from stagnant ponds, either; they were taken from tap water sources in places like U.S. Congress buildings, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, and Trump Tower in New York. On average, the number of fibers found in each 500ml (16.9-oz.) sample ranged between 4.8 (in the U.S.) to 1.9 (in Europe).
So, where are these plastic fibers coming from? We can see how they get into waterways via storm runoff and wastewater — but drinking water? One potential source may be the air. Clothing and carpets shed fibers through everyday wear and tear. Tumble dryers are another possibility, as almost 80% of dryers vent to the open air. Washing machines also release plastic fiber into the wash water: one study found that a single wash cycle can deliver 700,000 fibers into the environment.
One researcher in the study, Johnny Gasperi of the University Paris-Est Créteil, says, “We really think that the lakes [and other water bodies] can be contaminated by cumulative atmospheric inputs. What we observed in Paris tends to demonstrate that a huge amount of fibers are present in atmospheric fallout.”
Anne Marie Mahon, a researcher at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, adds, “If the fibers are there, it is possible that the nanoparticles are there too that we can’t measure. Once they are in the nanometer range they can really penetrate a cell and that means they can penetrate organs, and that would be worrying.”
What about bottled water? Water treatment systems can’t filter drinking water that finely, at the nanoparticle level. Microplastics were found in bottled water samples tested, as well as in spring water. The samples taken in Beirut, Lebanon, for example, were from natural springs, and 94% of them were contaminated.
Since the 1950s, 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been created. “We are increasingly smothering ecosystems in plastic,” says study leader Roland Geyer from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He adds, “And I am very worried that there may be all kinds of unintended, adverse consequences that we will only find out about once it is too late.”
Prof. Richard Thompson of Plymouth University, UK, says, “It became clear very early on that the plastic would release those chemicals and that actually, the conditions in the gut would facilitate really quite rapid release.”
It’s imperative we learn more about the short- and long-term health effects of all this plastic. We need to urge our government to support more research into finding and eliminating sources of contamination and the health impacts of ingesting microplastic particles. We need more recycling and better waste management and better water filtration. We need to stop making everything out of plastic.