In September 2017, Damian Carrington, an environmental editor at the Guardian, reported on drinking water contamination due to microplastic waste and how billions across the world are drinking plastic-contaminated water. As reported in a study published by OrbMedia, scientists tested tap water from more than a dozen nations across the globe and found that 83% of samples contained pieces of microplastic, with the United States having the highest concentrations (93% of all samples being contaminated) and European nations having the lowest contamination rates (72% of all samples being contaminated). This is equivalent to about 4.8 pieces of microplastic per 500ml in the United States and 1.9 pieces in European countries. The microplastics themselves are not currently known to negatively affect a person’s health but what does make them dangerous, Kaitlyn Kubat reported, is that they act “like tiny islands that bacteria can attach to and grown on.” As Carrington noted, microplastics are “known to contain and absorb toxic chemicals and research done on wild animals has found that they are released in the body.” So, while the plastics themselves may not be affecting your health, the bacteria and toxins that they harbor can.
Tap water is not the only source of microplastics. A 2014 study in Germany found that all twenty-four brands of beer in one test contained microplastic contamination; the same researchers also found contaminants in honey and sugar. A 2015 study by researchers in Paris discovered microplastics in the air and estimated that three to ten tons of fibers get deposited in the city every year. A subsequent publication by the same team found microplastics in the air in peoples’ homes. Breathing microplastics can potentially cause the chemicals they contain, or have absorbed, to be released into the lower lungs. Carrington’s report quoted public health experts asserting that research on the human health impacts of ingesting plastic particles is “urgently needed.”
The Guardian report notes that plastic fibers are released by “the everyday wear and tear” of clothing items and carpets. In the United States, eighty percent of all clothes dryers vent to the open air. Atmospheric contamination may also explain how water supplies are becoming contaminated.
Millions of tons of plastic are produced every year while only twenty percent of that is recycled every year, making plastic waste contamination a momentous problem for our planet. As Carrington writes, we may need plastics in our lives, but we are doing damage by “discarding them in careless ways.”
As of September 2017, a search using ProQuest’s National Newspapers Expanded database identified no corporate media coverage of the Orb study on which Carrington’s Guardian report was based.
Damian Carrington, “Plastic Fibres Found in Tap Water Around the World,” Guardian, September 5, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/06/plastic-fibres-found-tap-water-around-world-study-reveals.
Kaitlyn Kubat, “Much of U.S. Tap Water Contaminated by Microplastics, Study Says.” Minnesota Daily, September 18, 2017, http://www.mndaily.com/article/2017/09/much-of-u-s-tap-water-contaminated-by-microplastics.
Student Researcher: Richard Allen Harwood (Citrus College)
Faculty Evaluator: Andy Lee Roth (Citrus College)