By FRANK CARINI
The amount of plastic swimming in the planet’s waters is incomprehensible, and frightening. The fact that plastic fibers have now been found in drinking water should come as no surprise. Humans, after all, have been dumping all sorts of nasty stuff, from raw sewage and industrial/agricultural waste to coal ash and pharmaceuticals, into water for millennia.
A recent investigation by Orb Media found microplastic contamination in 83 percent of drinking-water samples tested worldwide. The United States had the highest contamination rate, at 94 percent, with plastic fibers found in tap water sampled at such sites as Congress buildings and the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters.
A smaller study conducted last year in Ireland also found tiny plastic fibers and fragments in tap water and well samples. Bottled water also has tested positive for microplastics. Plus, the water is actually stored in, well, plastic.
Besides the air we breathe, you’d be hard-pressed to make an argument that water isn’t the most vital resource to our survival. It’s certainly not oil, gold, the latest iPhone, or plastic bags. But we continue to take water for granted, even the sources we rely on for drinking. NFL quarterbacks are better protected.
Where’s the outrage about plastic-infused drinking water? The general public is too distracted posting pictures of what’s for dinner, and politicians get more fired up about plastic-bag bans and the alleged jobs that would be lost if these petroleum pouches were outlawed. By this logic, prior to 1979, when plastic grocery bags were first introduced, must have been akin to the Dark Ages.
The tiny plastic particles floating around in water are hard to find, but they carry some scary stuff. Plastics often contain a variety of chemicals to change their properties or color, and many of these are toxic or hormone disruptors. Plastics also can attract/absorb pollutants such as dioxins, metals and some pesticides, which we spray around with little consideration.
Microplastics can attract bacteria found in sewage. Studies have shown there are harmful pathogens on microplastics found downstream of wastewater treatment facilities. Microplastics are also known to contain and absorb toxic chemicals, and research on wild animals shows these toxins are released in the body.
How microplastics end up in drinking water is unknown, but the atmosphere is one obvious source, with plastic fibers shed by the everyday wear and tear of carpets and clothing. Dryers are another likely source, with nearly 80 percent of U.S. households having dryers that usually vent outside.
Plastic fibers may also be flushed into water systems, with a recent study finding that each cycle of a washing machine potentially releases 700,000 fibers into the environment.
Standard water treatment systems don’t filter out many microplastics, which isn’t a good thing, considering some 300 million tons of plastic is produced annually worldwide. And, with just 20 percent recycled, much of the remaining 80 percent ends up contaminating air, land, and drinking water.
Researchers believe if microplastics are in your water, they’re also likely to be in your food, and craft beer. Scientists in Belgium have calculated that shellfish consumers are eating up to 11,000 plastic fragments in their seafood annually.
New studies also have found microplastics in salt from the United States, China and Europe, adding to the mounting evidence that plastic pollution is pervasive.
Plastic is essentially indestructible. It doesn’t biodegrade, and instead continues to break down into smaller pieces — down to particles in nanometer scale, one-one thousandth of one-one thousandth of a millimeter. Studies show these tiny particles can migrate through the intestinal wall and travel to the lymph nodes and other organs.
The impact of microplastics on public health isn't yet fully understood — the same thing was once said about lead and asbestos — but a few more bag bans certainly wouldn’t hurt.
Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.