Sat, Sep 09, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Plastic fibers found in tap water around the world

By Damian Carrington  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Lance Liu

Microplastic contamination has been found in tap water in countries worldwide, leading to calls from scientists for urgent research on the health implications.

Scores of tap water samples from more than a dozen nations were analyzed by scientists for an investigation by Orb Media, who shared the findings with the Guardian. Overall, 83 percent of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibers.

The US had the highest contamination rate, at 94 percent, with plastic fibers found in tap water sampled at sites including the US Congress buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters and Trump Tower in New York. Lebanon and India had the next-highest rates.

European nations including the UK, Germany and France had the lowest contamination rate, but it was still 72 percent. The average number of fibers found in each 500ml sample ranged from 4.8 in the US to 1.9 in Europe.

The new analyses indicate the ubiquitous extent of microplastic contamination in the global environment. Previous work has been largely focused on plastic pollution in the oceans, which suggests people are eating microplastics via contaminated seafood.

“We have enough data from looking at wildlife, and the impacts that it’s having on wildlife, to be concerned,” said Sherri Mason, a microplastic expert at the State University of New York in Fredonia, who supervised the analyses for Orb. “If it’s impacting [wildlife], then how do we think that it’s not going to somehow impact us?”

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 Anne Marie Mahon at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, who conducted the research.

Mahon cited two principal concerns: very small plastic particles and the chemicals or pathogens that microplastics can harbor.

“If the fibers are there, it is possible that the nanoparticles are there too, which we can’t measure,” she said. “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.”

The Orb analyses caught particles of more than 2.5 microns in size, 2,500 times bigger than a nanometer.

Microplastics can attract bacteria found in sewage, Mahon said, adding: “Some studies have shown there are more harmful pathogens on microplastics downstream of wastewater treatment plants.”

Microplastics are also known to contain and absorb toxic chemicals and research on wild animals shows they are released in the body.

“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,” Plymouth University UK professor Richard Thompson said.

His research has shown that microplastics are found in a third of fish caught in the UK.

The scale of global microplastic contamination is only starting to become clear, with studies in Germany finding 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 3 to 10 tonnes of fibers on the city each year.

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