How certain are you that you are drinking clean and safe water? More often than not, bottled water gives the impression of being pure and clean. But in reality, these products may not be as clean as you perceive them to be. Results of a global investigation revealed that the water samples were contaminated with microplastics which are basically tiny particles of plastic, so small they can’t be seen with the naked eye. Plastics that are 5000 microns or those that are smaller than 5 mm in size are considered microplastics.
According to microplastics researcher, Professor Sherri Mason, the single-use disposable plastic products that we use daily are made out of materials that can last for centuries, and it’s something that we should really think about.
CBC News partnered with a US-based non-profit organisation called Orb Media to conduct the research. Prof. Mason collected 259 bottles of water from nine different countries. They were sold internationally and although they have the same brand, the manufacturing and bottling process as well as the water source varied from one country to another.
The samples were comprised of 11 brands with some dominant players such as Evian, Gerolsteiner, Aquafina, San Pellegrino, Dasani, Nestle Pure Life, and other major brands in America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. The main purpose of the study was to establish the presence of plastics in bottled water. Results of the research revealed that 93% of all the bottles tested contained microplastics which include polyethylene terephthalate, polystyrene, polypropylene, and nylon.
10.4 Particles Per Liter
When plastics break down, they eventually go into the ocean and landfills. Some manufacturers intentionally developed microbeads, such as those found in skin care products. In Canada, New Zealand, the US, the UK, Ireland, Taiwan and Sweden, there are various forms of bans on microbeads, and in America, there is pressure on companies to voluntarily phase out products containing microbeads.
A significant number of microbeads were found in the stomachs of fish and they were also present in the Great Lakes.
Results showed that 10.4 particles of plastics at least 100 microns (0.10mm) in size were found in every litre of water. Researchers claimed that this size is double the level of microplastics found in tap water extracted from over a dozen countries across the five continents.
Smaller particles were also found, and on average, researchers discovered 314 particles in every litre of water tested. The number of particles in the bottles varied significantly. Some only contained 1 particle while others had thousands.
It isn’t clear yet whether microplastics have adverse effects on human health, and there are no previous studies that have identified the safe maximum consumption level. Furthermore, Canada, Europe and the United States do not impose limits on microplastics in bottled water. The rules and regulations imposed by other countries where other samples were taken from are not yet known.
Surprisingly, Nestle and Gerolsteiner have confirmed that their own testing showed that their bottled water contained microplastics but at a much lower level than what Orb Media research reported.
The plastics that we use today can take hundreds of years to break down, if they do degrade at all. Many kinds of plastics continue to break down into smaller particles until they are no longer seen by the naked eye.
They often act as a sponge which absorbs and releases chemicals that pose a threat to fish and mammals when eaten.
If you’re wondering how plastics absorbs chemicals, take a look at the Tupperware in which your spaghetti Bolognese was stored. If you see an orange colour on the surface, you will be able to see for yourself an example of chemicals being absorbed by plastic.
Though the European Food Safety Authority claimed that most microplastics would pass through the digestive system easily, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization is still concerned, because the size of many microplastics means they can pass through the organs and into the bloodstream.
It was unclear from the research exactly how the plastics were able to get into the bottle. Scientists could not determine if the microplastics found were directly from the water source or if they entered the bottle during the manufacturing or bottling process. The professor even noted that merely opening the cap could cause small particles of plastic to break off into the bottle.
The Science Behind the Test
The bottles tested from India, Indonesia, Mexico, Thailand, Lebanon, China, Brazil, and the US represented various brands in different continents. They were shipped to and tested in a lab in New York.
Using Nile Red fluorescent tagging, scientists were able to identify plastics. Because the dye used in this process easily sticks to plastic, researchers filtered the dyed water and used a microscope to see if there was a presence of plastic in each brand.
The researchers were able to identify plastics that were over 0.10 mm or 100 microns in size. While they could not categorically identify particles smaller than this size, Mason and her team believed that they were most likely also plastics. Even the developer of the Nile Red Fluorescent Tagging agreed.
To add more scientific perspective to the research, Orb Media and CBC News collaborated with other microplastics experts and toxicologists. In the end, the experts were convinced that microplastics might be present in the water. This gave the green signal on further research.
Big Brands Respond
The findings of the research did not sit well with Nestle and Gerolsteiner. They claimed to have tested their own products and admitted that microplastics are present in the water, but in smaller levels than what was claimed by the Orb Media study. They maintained that they conduct internal analyses on a regular basis and their results significantly differ.
On another note, the company behind the Indonesian brand Aqua as well as Evian revealed that Orb Media is in no position to comment as the scientific method they used was unclear. Furthermore, they questioned the data used in the study.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s Minalba brand claimed that they follow the security and quality standards set by their country’s legislation.
While the Wahaha and Biserli brands refused to comment on Orb’s claims, the American Beverage Association expressed their interest in contributing to scientific researches involving microplastics in bottled water. They believe that further scientific research will certainly help them in understanding the scope and impact as well as in making appropriate steps that would ensure the safety of bottled water products. The American Beverage Association represents brands such as Aquafina, Dasani, Nestle, and Evian.
Plastics in Our Daily Lives
It is estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastics than fish in the ocean. This can pose a massive threat to the human population, as well as sea life. Many plastic products float on the surface, blocking sunlight from entering the water and preventing the ocean animals from surfacing.
Though there has been a growing awareness about the negative impact of using plastic, it is difficult to get rid of something that has been part of our day-to-day life for so many years. We can perhaps carry refillable bottles instead of buying plastic bottled water, but there are still lots of products in the market that are contained in plastic.
Of course, plastics are very convenient, cheap, and lightweight. But their continued use will compromise not just Mother Nature, but our health and our children’s future. It’s time to act now, and let the ripples of change start with us.
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