Opinion

Plastic, Plastic, Everywhere, and in Many a Drop to Drink

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The amount of plastic swimming in the planet’s waters is incomprehensible, and frightening. The fact that plastic fibers have now been found in drinking water should come as no surprise. Humans, after all, have been dumping all sorts of nasty stuff, from raw sewage and industrial/agricultural waste to coal ash and pharmaceuticals, into water for millennia. 

Plastic, like lead and asbestos before it, is the make-life-easier material that will end up haunting us for generations. It already is.

A recent investigation by Orb Media found microplastic contamination in 83 percent of drinking-water samples tested worldwide. The United States had the highest contamination rate, at 94 percent, with plastic fibers found in tap water sampled at such sites as Congress buildings and the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters.

A smaller study conducted last year in Ireland also found tiny plastic fibers and fragments in tap water and well samples. Bottled water also has tested positive for microplastics. Plus, the water is actually stored in, well, plastic.

Besides the air we breathe, you’d be hard-pressed to make an argument that water isn’t the most vital resource to our survival. It’s certainly not oil, gold, the latest iPhone, or plastic bags. But we continue to take water for granted, even the sources we rely on for drinking. NFL quarterbacks are better protected.

Where’s the outrage about plastic-infused drinking water? The general public is too distracted posting pictures of what’s for dinner, and politicians get more fired up about plastic-bag bans and the alleged jobs that would be lost if these petroleum pouches were outlawed. By this logic, prior to 1979, when plastic grocery bags were first introduced, must have been akin to the Dark Ages.

The tiny plastic particles floating around in water are hard to find, but they carry some scary stuff. Plastics often contain a variety of chemicals to change their properties or color, and many of these are toxic or hormone disruptors. Plastics also can attract/absorb pollutants such as dioxins, metals and some pesticides, which we spray around with little consideration.

Microplastics can attract bacteria found in sewage. Studies have shown there are harmful pathogens on microplastics found downstream of wastewater treatment facilities. Microplastics are also known to contain and absorb toxic chemicals, and research on wild animals shows these toxins are released in the body.

How microplastics end up in drinking water is unknown, but the atmosphere is one obvious source, with plastic fibers shed by the everyday wear and tear of carpets and clothing. Dryers are another likely source, with nearly 80 percent of U.S. households having dryers that usually vent outside.

Plastic fibers may also be flushed into water systems, with a recent study finding that each cycle of a washing machine potentially releases 700,000 fibers into the environment.

Standard water treatment systems don’t filter out many microplastics, which isn’t a good thing, considering some 300 million tons of plastic is produced annually worldwide. And, with just 20 percent recycled, much of the remaining 80 percent ends up contaminating air, land, and drinking water.

Researchers believe if microplastics are in your water, they’re also likely to be in your food, and craft beer. Scientists in Belgium have calculated that shellfish consumers are eating up to 11,000 plastic fragments in their seafood annually.

New studies also have found microplastics in salt from the United States, China and Europe, adding to the mounting evidence that plastic pollution is pervasive.

Plastic is essentially indestructible. It doesn’t biodegrade, and instead continues to break down into smaller pieces — down to particles in nanometer scale, one-one thousandth of one-one thousandth of a millimeter. Studies show these tiny particles can migrate through the intestinal wall and travel to the lymph nodes and other organs.

The impact of microplastics on public health isn’t yet fully understood — the same thing was once said about lead and asbestos — but a few more bag bans certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.

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  1. Most American water supply companies do have a sand filtration units that drinking water has to flow through before it goes anywhere else for treating then then some where along the line is a chemical coagulation process to precipitate fine particulate materials out of the water column. So at least in most places around th e USA, the Usa drinking water should be relatively free of these plastic mini fibers and mini spheroids.

    I worked 2 summer at a water lad for a water supply company that is or was one of th e largest in th e USA for a total of 6 months, so I do know a thing or 2 about drinking water in the USA. They also have to do a lot of water testing as per what is the bible of water testing that is published each year and is called Standard Methods of water and waste water testing…

    • Sorry, late to the game here. They’re replaying an archived story and I somehow missed on the first pass: Ray, the account you are providing here flies somewhat in the face of the statistics provided which read, in part, "The United States had the highest contamination rate, at 94 percent, with plastic fibers found in tap water sampled at such sites as Congress buildings and the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters." How do you reconcile this inconsistency?

  2. no doubt that plastics in the environment are a significant problem. take the plastic sea which has formed in the gyre of the pacific ocean. however it would be nice to see a little more in depth analysis in the article about the causes etc. for instance its no doubt that plastics which are down stream of a sewage treatment plant have adsorbed bacteria. it is likely that any surface downstream of a sewage plant has adsorbed bacteria which may have come from the plant. did the author investigate how far down stream the bacteria survive or what their origin may have been. only DNA testing can determine that.

    there is a certain degree of editorial cherry picking of the data for dramatic purposes in the article which is disappointing.

    R Pastore P.E.

  3. The polyethylene sleeving used in ductile iron pipes may be part of the problem. ….."In the United States, the American National Standards Institute and American Water Works Association have standardized the use of polyethylene sleeving to protect ductile iron pipe from the effects of corrosion.[3][16] A 2003 report by researchers from the National Research Council of Canada noted that "both good and poor performances" of polyethylene sleeving had been reported.[10] However, a study in the Ductile Iron Pipe Research Association’s Florida test site found that, compared with uncoated pipes exposed to a corrosive environment, pipes encased in loose polyethylene sleeving were "in excellent condition".[6] Based on a 2005 meta analysis of 1,379 pipe specimens, loose polyethylene sleeving was found to be highly effective at mitigating corrosion. The only environment for which the analysis found the polyethylene sleeving did not provide effective corrosion control was for "uniquely severe" environments, a classification of a rare but extremely corrosive environment. The analysis found that a lifespan of 37 years could be expected in these "uniquely severe" environments.[6]" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ductile_iron_pipe

  4. Why so little outrage? As an environmentalist who awoke in the ’70s, I am dumbstruck at how distracted the environmental movement has become by "man made global warming." Dancing to the drumbeat of a political agenda. The hard data does not back up the models being touted as science. Even if man is having an impact on CO2 concentrations, it is not a pollutant in the quantities we are dealing with. CO2 is essential to life! We just need to let the plants take back some of their habitat to put things right. Plastics on the other hand. Essential to our convenience and that’s about it.

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