Plastics are ubiquitous in our kitchens, clothes, cars, toys… As it turns out, they can also get where you don't want to find them – in tap water, for example. Recent headlines warn that we may be drinking plastic; is the situation as serious as it sounds?
Though plastic does not biodegrade, it does break down into ever smaller pieces – first a few microns across (microplastics), then just a few nanometers (nanoplastics). Microplastic in fish and seafood has long been a concern (we have alredy written about it), but a recent study conducted for the journalism NGO Orb has shown that contaminated fish may not be the biggest of our problems. Analyzing over 150 samples of tap water from many countries, researchers found plastic fibers almost everywhere, most of all in samples from the US (5 fibers per half a liter). European states did better, but even there 70% of samples contained microplastics.
How does it get there?
Most of the fibers probably come from the atmosphere (a recent study suggests that in Paris up to 10 tons of plastic fibers may fall from the air every year). Our clothes, plastic containers and bags break down fiber by fiber just as we are using them.
Another source are our washing machines and dryers: a single jumper may release over 200 thousand fibers during one wash. The same can be said about plastic containers we put in the dishwasher.
Interestingly, the second-largest number of plastic fibers were found in samples from Lebanon, even though tap water in that country comes from natural springs. How plastic got there is a mystery.
Is it dangerous?
So far very there is little research on the interaction of microplastics and human body. It is known from marine studies that bacteria tend to accumulate and grow on plastic particles in seawater; the same could happen in our intestine, leading to infections.
Plastics by themselves can be toxic, too. Studies done on worms and fish show that ingestion of plastic fibers can lead to their accumulation in tissues in toxic amounts.
Finally, the Orb study only tested water samples for microfibers, while nobody knows how many nanoplastics particles there are in our water. Nanoparticles are small enough to enter into organs and individual cells. It is that potential risk that has researchers most concerned: could plastic particles wreak havoc with our body on a cellular level?
What can you do?
Very little, unfortunately. Bottled water may seem like a solution, but microplastics were found there, too. We cannot avoid washing our clothes or wearing synthetic materials, either. No water filtering system can possibly catch such small particles. However, so far there is no proof that plastic fibers really damage your health. Rather, the priority should be switching to recyclable and biodegradable materials. In 2015, US banned the use of microbeads – small particles of plastic used in cosmetics that ended up in the ocean – marking a true victory for the environment. A further tranformation of our plastic usage is needed – it is a monumental task in which we should all participate. To do your part, start by simply not using disposable plastic bags and cups.