World's drinking water contaminated with plastic fibres, study finds

"What we have here is plastic in the drinking water that human beings are consuming every day" - author of study, Dan Morrison, tells euronews.

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World's drinking water contaminated with plastic fibres, study finds

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A new investigation has discovered the presence of microfibres in tap water worldwide.

“What we have here is plastic in the drinking water that human beings are consuming every day,” co-author of the study, Dan Morrison, told euronews.

Europe lowest contamination rate

European nations had the lowest contamination rate, an investigation by Orb Media found, but this still stands at around 72 percent. On average, 4.8 fibres were found per 500 ml sample in the US and 1.9 in Europe.

Morrison, one of the Orb Media reporters carrying out the research on microplastic contamination, called for greater analysis of water quality.

“What we have here is something new. We’ve, for the first time, established the presence of microscopic plastic fibres in global tap water samples. What this calls for is a great deal more research into the force and the behaviour of these fibres”, he told euronews.

“In the broader sense what this calls for is a greater look at water quality and a greater look at the flow of plastic pollutants around the world.”

How has plastic ended up in drinking water?

The way microplastics end up in drinking water is not clear. The atmosphere could be one source, with everyday objects, such as tyres, clothes and carpets emitting particles into the air.

Europe is below the worldwide average of 83 percent. At 94 percent the US, the study suggests, is above the worldwide average. Morrison told euronews one theory he is considering for the difference in levels is the way tumble dryers generally operate on the two sides of the Atlantic. In the US, around 80 percent of dryers are vented into the open air, while in Europe a different kind of tumble dryer is generally used, “which does not vent into the open air.”

Are there any health effects?

There is no research on the impact – if any – these fibres have on human health. However, research on marine animals has shown that toxic chemicals are released in the body. The concern is, Morrison says, “that these fibres might behave the same way in the human gut. But at this time no one knows for sure.”

“We set out with a question and the question was: if microplastics are being found thick in the marine environment and thick in freshwater environments, are they in tap water? […] There was no public research that addressed this question. So, the only way to answer that question was to, ourselves, design a study and carry it out. So, we have carried out the first global survey of tap water to answer this question: is there microplastic in the tap water? And the answer indicates a strong ‘yes’”, said Morrison.

But, he explained, switching from tap to bottled drinking water may not necessarily be the answer.

“Packaged drinking water and bottled water in many jurisdictions, including the United States, is not subject to the same, strict guidelines that the water that comes out of your faucet is. So your drinking water – at least in New York City, where I’m from – is more tested than the bottled water you’re paying for from the shelves. I’m not sure that bottled water is a solution. I think, in the long term, what we need is more attention by regulators into plastic fibres in drinking water and to a host of other plastic-related chemicals in drinking water.”

Plastic omnipresent

Some 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced annually. Only around 20 percent is recycled or incinerated, meaning much ends up littering the environment. A report published in Science Advances found that since 1950, when plastic started being fabricated on a large scale, some 8300 million metric tonnes have been produced. Its authors warn that plastic waste has become ever-present in the environment.

“I’m not sure that one can escape plastic fibres at this time and this is because most of the food that you eat is also itself also prepared with water. […] What’s needed at this time is to assess how much of a risk this is. Is this something that should consume public health officials? Is this something that should just be worked on, with an eye towards solving it in the future? In the United States we have something called the Contaminants Candidate List, which is a list of contaminants that are not regulated, that are being considered for regulation. And plastic fibres aren’t even on the list of things that they’re considering regulating. So, we’re way off from dealing with this, I believe”, said Morrison.

with Luke Barber