Plastic is the everywhere. We use it to store food, hold trash, build homes and just about everything in between.
Turns out we drink it, too.
A recent investigation by nonprofit media organization Orb Media found that 83 percent of tap water samples from 14 countries were contaminated with microplastic fibers, which could pose major health risks across the globe.
“The chemicals that can absorb to these tiny plastic particles can desorb into the guts of birds, fish, and other organisms that live around the ocean,” says Mary Kosuth, postgraduate researcher at the University of Minnesota. “I don’t see how humans are any different.”
Kosuth was one of the primary researchers involved with the investigation, which found that 94 percent of water tested in the United States was contaminated with plastics. Even the lowest contamination rates—found among European countries—clocked in at a whopping 72 percent.
The average number of fibers per 500mL water sample ranged from nearly five in the U.S. to just under two in Europe. At present, there’s no globally accepted term for microplastic—it’s defined as anything less than five millimeters in length (with no lower limit). There is a cap on what microscopes can see, but Kosuth says the particles she found were no smaller than one or two tenths of a millimeter.
“If you’ve ever been in a room where the sun is coming through the window and you can see little dust particles in the air, that’s about the size of them,” she says.
The full health effect of microplastics in drinking water isn’t completely understood, but it’s easy to fear the worst. Research indicates that the tiny plastic bits attract chemical pollutants and are regularly ingested or inhaled by fish, which pass them along to whatever organism eventually devours them—including humans.
It’s why so many studies have focused on plastic contamination in consumer products and ocean waters. Like many, Kosuth had been aware of the problem for years. But after attending a webinar on plastics in the Great Lakes, she decided to make it the focus of her master’s research. That brought her into contact with Dr. Sherri Mason, a microplastics expert at The State University of New York at Fredonia.
“About a year later, [Dr. Mason] had been in contact with people from Orb Media, so it was kind of serendipitous how we got connected,” Kosuth says.
Water sampling for the investigation spanned the duration of the 2016-17 school year, and was done in concert with scientists and science-based organizations from the other 13 countries involved. According to Chris Tyree, Orb Media’s principal reporter, the global nature of the problem was exactly why they looked into it.
“We look at broad stories and try to focus that down to something that’s very approachable, no matter who you are, no matter where you live, no matter what your access to technology is,” he says.
Initially, Orb had its sights focused on a story about microbeads—tiny pieces of plastic found in body and facial washes. Tyree discussed the story with Dr. Mark Brown of the University of Melbourne, who said he was having a hard time getting clean water samples from the tap in his lab for experiments. That’s when a lightbulb went off.
“I thought, if it’s coming out of his lab, where else in the world could it be coming from?” Tyree says. “That’s what led us to researching the project in this way.”
The focus shifted to microplastics in tap water, which turned out to be a surprisingly global issue. Fortunately, the investigation has had a similar widespread impact—Tyree said it had been translated into 25 languages at last count. That kind of attention spurs both public concern and more interest in research.
“It’s fantastic that people are looking into this more,” Kosuth says. “We weren’t looking to do a completely thorough, comprehensive study of drinking water globally. This is just the first step in a very long process.”
It’s an enormous undertaking, but Kosuth is optimistic. She hopes that future studies will be more localized and focus on details like different sources of water and specific types of plastic particles.
“Once we have a huge body of information together, then we’ll have a much better idea of how far reaching this problem is.”