The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that it is launching a review of the potential risks of plastic particles in drinking water, after a study found tiny pieces of plastic in more than 90% of samples from the world’s most popular bottled water brands.
It will assess the latest research into the spread and impact of so-called microplastics – particles that are small enough to be ingested. It comes after journalism organisation Orb Media found plastic particles in many major brands of bottled water. In one bottle of Nestlé Pure Life, concentrations were as high as 10,000 plastic pieces per litre of water.
There is no evidence that microplastics can undermine human health but the WHO wants to assess the state of knowledge. Bruce Gordon, coordinator of the WHO’s global work on water and sanitation, told BBC News that the key question was whether a lifetime of eating or drinking particles of plastic could have an effect.
“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. “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.”
Mr Gordon said that he did not want to alarm anyone, and also emphasised that a far greater waterborne threat comes in countries where supplies can be contaminated with sewage. But he said he recognised that people hearing about the presence of microplastics in their drinking water would turn to the WHO for advice. “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.”
That analysis was conducted by the State University of New York in Fredonia as part of a project from the U.S.-based journalism organization Orb Media, and it involved 259 bottles of water from 11 brands across nine countries. They were bought in China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Lebanon, Kenya, Thailand and the U.S.
The tests were carried out at the State University of New York in Fredonia as part of a project involving original research and reporting by the US-based journalism organisation Orb Media. Using a dye called Nile Red, which binds to free floating pieces of plastic, the university’s Prof Sherri Mason found an average of 10 plastic particles per litre of water, each larger than the size of a human hair.
Smaller particles assumed to be plastic but not positively identified were found as well – an average of 314 per litre. Of the 259 bottles tested, only 17 were free of plastics, according to the study. A few questioned why the study’s results were so much higher than their own internal research or pointed out that there are no regulations on microplastics or agreed methods for testing for them.
The study comes on top of earlier investigations that have found microplastics in tap water, beer, sea salt and fish, and Prof Mason told me that researchers need to be able to answer the pressing question of whether microplastics can be harmful. “What we do know is that some of these particles are big enough that, once ingested, they are probably excreted but along the way they can release chemicals that cause known human health impacts. “Some of these particles are so incredibly small that they can actually make their way across the gastro-intestinal tract, across the lining and be carried throughout the body, and we don’t know the implications of what that means on our various organs and tissues.”
The UK’s Food Standards Agency said it was unlikely that the levels of microplastic reported in the bottles of water could cause harm but it added that, “it would assess any emerging information concerning microplastics in food and drink”.
For Dr Stephanie Wright of the King’s College Centre for Environment and Health, the priority is to understand how much microplastic we are exposed to, and exactly what happens to it inside us.
Researchers have established that tiny particles of titanium dioxide can pass through the lining of the gut so the same might be possible with plastic, raising the question of where it would then end up.
Abigail Barrows, who carried out the research for Story of Stuff in her laboratory in Maine, said there were several possible routes for the plastics to be entering the bottles. “Plastic microfibres are easily airborne. Clearly that’s occurring not just outside but inside factories. It could come in from fans or the clothing being worn,” she said. Stiv Wilson, campaign coordinator at Story of Stuff, said finding plastic contamination in bottled water was problematic “because people are paying a premium for these products”.
Jacqueline Savitz, of campaign group Oceana, said: “We know plastics are building up in marine animals and this means we too are being exposed, some of us every day. Between the microplastics in water, the toxic chemicals in plastics and the end-of-life exposure to marine animals, it’s a triple whammy.”
The BBC News contacted the companies involved and most responded:
Nestle told us its own internal testing for microplastics began more than two years ago and had not detected any “above trace level”. A spokesman added that Prof Mason’s study missed key steps to avoid “false positives” but he invited Orb Media to compare methods.
Gerolsteiner also said it had been testing its water for microplastics for a number of years and that the results showed levels “significantly below the limits for particles” set for pharmaceutical companies. It said it could not understand how Prof Mason’s study reached its conclusions. It also said its measures exceeded industry standards but added that microparticles are “everywhere” so “the possibility of them entering the product from ambient air or packaging materials during the bottling process can therefore not be completely ruled out”.
Coca-Cola said it had some of the most stringent quality standards in the industry and used a “multi-step filtration process”. But it too acknowledged that microplastics “appear to be ubiquitous and therefore may be found at minute levels even in highly treated products”.
Danone said it could not comment on the study because “the methodology used is unclear” but added that its own bottles had “food grade packaging”. It pointed out that there are no regulations on microplastics or a scientific consensus on how to test for them, and it also highlighted a much smaller German study last year that found plastic particles in single use bottles but not above a statistically significant amount.
PepsiCo said Aquafina had “rigorous quality control measures sanitary manufacturing practices, filtration and other food safety mechanisms which yield a reliably safe product”. It described the science of microplastics as “an emerging field, in its infancy, which requires further scientific analysis, peer-reviewed research and greater collaboration across many stakeholders”.
The full Orb Media report can be found at www.OrbMedia.org. Next time you choose the water bottle, think about it!
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