The scale of the world’s current micro plastics pollution problem can’t be overstated. Plastics, and more importantly their nearly invisible half-broken-down remnants, are now everywhere. They’re in the food you eat, the water you drink, and even often enough in the air you breathe.
Even knowing that, I was still somewhat surprised by the findings of a recent study investigating the scale of micro plastic fiber pollution in tap water around the world. The findings are almost hard to believe. Apparently, around 94.4% of US tap water is now contaminated with micro plastics.
And the situation isn’t much better elsewhere — in Lebanon, the contamination rate is 93.8%; in India, it’s 82.4%; in Uganda, it’s 80.8%; and even in “Europe,” it’s 72.2%.
The average number of plastic fibers found in each 500ml sample taken in the US by researchers was 4.8 (the world’s leader on the metric, apparently). Even in Europe the average was still 1.9 plastic fibers per 500ml sample; and that’s apparently as good as it gets anywhere in the world (as far as tap water goes).
So, learning this, you may now be saying: “Who cares, I’ll live on beer!” But that won’t work either, as other recent research has shown that practically all of the world’s major beer brands sell product contaminated with micro plastics as well. And the situation with regard to flours, honeys, and other common food items isn’t much better, going on other recent research.
That goes for the sea salt that’s in the majority of the food you eat as well. Numerous studies in recent years have found that sea salt products throughout Europe, the US, China, and elsewhere are essentially all host to significant quantities of micro plastics.
These micro plastics are known to very easily absorb toxic chemicals and to play host to dangerous microbes. Recent research has shown that these chemicals are released into the bodies of animals following ingestion.
Plymouth University Professor Richard Thompson commented: “It became clear very early on that the plastic would release those chemicals and that actually, the conditions in the gut would facilitate really quite rapid release.”
So, if you eat these micro plastics — or if a seagull does, or a trout, or a whale, etc. — they don’t just pass right through you, but rather release their poisons into you.
With regard to the study concerning plastic fiber contamination in tap water, the Guardian provides more: “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 contaminated with plastic fibres. … The new research tested 159 samples using 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.”
On that note, a 2015 study based in Paris found that 3 to 10 tonnes of plastic fibers are being deposited onto the city every year atmospherically. The study noted that the air inside of people’s homes was often heavily contaminated with micro plastic fibers.
“We really think that the lakes (and other water bodies) can be contaminated by cumulative atmospheric inputs,” explained researcher Johnny Gasperi of the University Paris-Est Créteil. “What we observed in Paris tends to demonstrate that a huge amount of fibres are present in atmospheric fallout.”
The Guardian coverage continues: “Plastic fibres may also be flushed into water systems, with a recent study finding that each cycle of a washing machine could release 700,000 fibres into the environment. Rains could also sweep up microplastic pollution, which could explain why the household wells used in Indonesia were found to be contaminated.
“In Beirut, Lebanon, the water supply comes from natural springs but 94% of the samples were contaminated. ‘This research only scratches the surface, but it seems to be a very itchy one,’ said Hussam Hawwa, at the environmental consultancy Difaf, which collected samples for Orb.”
How exactly does “spring water” become contaminated with micro plastics fibers? That’s probably a question that’s worth finding an answer to…
Notably, some (though not all) of the samples of commercial bottled water tested by Orb in the US were also home to micro plastics — though, apparently, at lower levels. It’s ironic since the water is bottled in plastic.
As a reminder here: There are currently around 300 million tonnes of mostly disposable plastics being manufactured each year; only around 20% of these plastics will end up being recycled or incinerated. Where do the rest eventually end up? At best, buried in a landfill somewhere for future generations to worry about; at worst, everywhere else in the world, in the form of litter and micro plastics. Roughly 12.3 million tonnes of plastic pollution are known to be entering the world’s oceans every year.
“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,” noted Professor Roland Geyer, of the University of California and Santa Barbara.
It’s a very cogent point. Though I have to wonder if “we” really will “find out” at all at some point. It does seem likely though that future generations will look back at the period of time that we are living through now and wonder what was wrong with us, that we were willing to degrade the world so utterly.