Our planet is flooded with plastic. Since plastic first took off in the 1950s, humankind has produced 8.3 billion tons of plastic, that’s enough to cover the entirity of Argentina, spread out ankle-deep.
Lately, the world seemed to become more aware of the problem of plastic pollution. But even though many countries are taking measures to reduce plastic and implement bans of single use plastics such as plastic straws in Taiwan, the plastic boom is still unbroken.
More than half of the world’s total volume of plastic has been produced since the beginning of the noughties, production has grown exponentially in recent decades and is predicted to double again by 2025. As of 2015, only 9% of plastic ever produced has been recycled, and without action by 2050, there will be 12 billion tonnes of plastic in landfills and the environment.
Despite all efforts, plastic pollution is one of our big environmental problems and will likely be in the future.
Meanwhile, tiny plastic particles have not only entered every corner of our environment from the Alps to the Artic, but also our bodies through the food we eat and the water we drink.
What we all want to know, of course, is: Are microplastics in drinking water a health risk for humans?
A recently published report by the World Health Organization (WHO) critically examines the evidence related to the occurrence of microplastics in the water cycle (including both tap and bottled drinking-water and its sources), the potential health impacts from microplastic exposure and the removal of microplastics during wastewater and drinking-water treatment.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has now analyzed for the first time, which health consequences the drinkable plastic could have.
The result: there is up to date no evidence so far that this poses a risk to humans.
Not a hazard, but not necessarily ‘harmless
Even though the study concludes that there is no acute hazard through microplastics in potable water, the authors still point out, that we lack of sufficient research and data on plastic pollution. For their investigation, the WHO has compiled the results of 50 recent studies, only nine of which specifically targeted microplastics in drinking water.
The authors warn against complacency as more research is needed to fully understand how plastics spreads into the environment and work its way through human bodies.
According to the report, it is unlikely that particles larger than 150 micrometers, will accumulate in the body, but for smaller plastic particles that could be different. Those particles could potentially pass through the walls of digestive tracts and get stuck, but researchers believe they are unlikely to accumulate in harmful quantities. Unfortunately there are hardly any studies on small and very tiny nanoplastics (those less than 1 micrometre) to be sure of their impact.
There is urgent need for further research. Up to now, there is even no universally agreed definition what microplastic really is. Currently plastic particles smaller than half a millimetre across generally considered to be microplastic.
Situation in Germany
German news magazine Der Spiegel reported in an article that microplastic has also been detected in German drinking water samples in an analysis from 2017, albeit in very small quantities. On average, two and a half microscopic particles floated in one liter of water from the cities Hamburg and Dortmund.
This is fairly low in comparison to samples of the WHO study from other countries, where up to 100,000 particles per liter were discovered.
Still a long way to go!
Tiny particles of plastic get into our drinking water in a number of ways, such as surface runoff after rain or snow, waste water and industrial effluent. Plastic bottles and caps that are used may also be sources of microplastics in drinking water.
According to the authors “routine monitoring of microplastics in drinking water is not recommended because resources would be better spent on removing bacteria and viruses that are a far greater and proven risk.” Thereby the authors want to draw attention to the fact, that a huge part of the world’s population is still facing significant health issues of inadequately or untreated water, with an estimated 2 billion people globally drinking fecally contaminated water.
So for those of us, who have the privilege of access to clean drinking-water, but are worried about the contamination with mircoplastics, what can we do?
Modern waste water treatment plants can already remove more than 90% of microplastics from wastewater, with the highest removal coming from tertiary treatment such as filtration.
Probably the best thing to prevent and reduce the contamination of your drinking water from microplastics is to avoid plastic wherever possible.
Plastic pollution is a global problem and a beginning is to reduce plastic pollution by phasing out single-use plastics and promoting recycling and the use of alternatives worldwide. There is a continuing need for governments, industries and society to reduce plastic inputs into the environment at source, in order to limit contamination and prevent the problem from becoming even worse.
By Stefan Simon for Collective Green