Plastic fibres found in tap water around the world, study reveals

Exclusive: Tests demonstrate billions of people globally are drinking water contaminated by plastic particles, with 83% of samples found to be polluted

Microplastic contamination has been may be in tap water in countries around the world, leading to calls from scientists for urgent research on the implications for health.

Scores of tap water samples from more than a dozen nations were analysed by scientists for an investigation by Orb Media, who shared the findings with the Guardian. Overall, 83% of the samples were polluted with plastic fibres.

The US had the highest contamination rate, at 94%, with plastic fibers found in tap water sampled at sites including Congress builds, 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 this was still 72%. The median number of fibers found in each 500 ml 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 run 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 potential impacts that it’s having on wildlife, to be concerned ,” said Dr 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 magnified image of garment microfibres from washing machine effluent. One analyze found that a fleece coat can shed as many as 250,000 fibres per clean. Photo: Politenes of Rozalia Project

A separate small examine in the Republic of Ireland released in June also find microplastic contamination in a handful of tap water and well samples.” We don’t know what the[ health] impact is and for the above reasons we should follow the precautionary principle and put enough endeavor into it now, immediately, so we can find out what the real risks are ,” said Dr Anne Marie Mahon at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, who conducted the research.

Mahon said there were two principal concerns: very small plastic particles and the chemicals or pathogens that microplastics can harbour.” If the fibres are there, it is possible that the nanoparticles are there too that we can’t measure ,” she said.” Once they are in the nanometre scope they can really penetrate a cell and that means they can penetrate organs, and that would be fretting .” The Orb analyses caught particles of more than 2.5 microns in size, 2,500 times bigger than a nanometre.

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

Plastic fibres found in tap water across the world

Microplastics are also known to contain and assimilate toxic chemicals and research on wild animals shows they are released in the body. Prof Richard Thompson, at Plymouth University, UK, told Orb:” It became clear very early on that the plastic would release those chemicals and that actually, the conditions in the gut would facilitate genuinely quite rapid release .” His research has shown 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 examines in Germany receiving fibres and fragments in all of the 24 brew 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 three to 10 tonnes of fibres on the city each year, and that it was also present in the air in people’s homes.

This research led Frank Kelly, prof of environmental health at King’s College London, to tell a UK parliamentary investigation in 2016:” If we inhale them in they could potentially deliver chemicals to the lower parts of our lungs and maybe even across into our circulation .” Having ensure the Orb data, Kelly told the Guardian that research is urgently needed to determine whether ingesting plastic particles is a health risk.

The new research tested 159 samples utilizing a standard technique to eliminate contamination from other sources and was performed at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. The samples came from across the world, including from Uganda, Ecuador and Indonesia.

How microplastics end up in drinking water is for now a mystery, but the atmosphere is one obvious source, with fibres shed by the everyday wear and tear of clothes and carpets. Tumble dryers are another potential source, with almost 80% of US households having dryers that usually vent to the open air.

” We actually think that the lakes[ and other water bodies] can be contaminated by cumulative atmospheric inputs ,” told Johnny Gasperi, at the University Paris-Est Creteil, who did the Paris analyses.” What we observed in Paris tends to demonstrate that a huge amount of fibres are present in atmospheric fallout .”

Plastic fibers may also be flushed into water systems, with a recent survey seeing that each cycle of a clean machine could release 700,000 fibers into the environment. Rains could also sweep up microplastic pollution, which could explain why the household wells being implemented in Indonesia were found to be contaminated.

In Beirut, Lebanon, the water supply comes from natural springs but 94% of the samples were polluted.” This research merely scratches the surface, but it seems to be a very itchy one ,” told Hussam Hawwa, at the environmental consultancy Difaf, which collected samples for Orb.

This planktonic arrow worm, Sagitta setosa, has eaten a blue plastic fibre about 3mm long. Plankton support the entire marine food chain. Photo: Richard Kirby/ Courtesy of Orb Media

Current standard water treatment systems do not filter out all of the microplastics, Mahon said:” There is nowhere actually where you can say these are being trapped 100%. In terms of fibers, the diameter is 10 microns across and it would be very unusual to find that level of filtration in our drinking water systems .”

Bottled water may not provide a microplastic-free alternative to tapwater, as the they were also found in a few cases samples of commercial bottled water tested in the US for Orb.

Almost 300 m tonnes of plastic is made per year and, with merely 20% recycled or incinerated, much of it aims up littering the air, land and ocean. A report in July find 8.3 bn tonnes of plastic has been produced since the 1950 s, with the researchers warns that plastic waste has become ubiquitous in the environment.

” We are increasingly smothering ecosystems in plastic and I am very worried that there may be all kinds of unintended, adverse consequences that we will only find out about once it is too late ,” told Prof Roland Geyer, from the University of California and Santa Barbara, who led the study.

Mahon said the new tap water analyses create a red flag, but that more work is needed to replicate the results, find the causes of contamination and evaluate the possible health impacts.

She said plastics are very useful, but that management of the waste is necessary drastically improved:” We need plastics in our lives, but it is us that is doing the damage by discarding them in very careless ways .”

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