While the problem of microplastic pollution is not novel, in recent times, there has been a surge in public health awareness. Thus, various studies have started to investigate the gravity of microplastics in drinking water and their repercussions.
In this article, we will explore the issue of microplastics in our drinking water, their effects on our health and the environment, and how to test for and remove microplastics from water samples.
What Exactly Are Microplastics
Microplastics are a type of plastic particle that can be as small as 1 micrometer or up to 5 millimeters in size and are not biodegradable. They are found in high concentrations in oceans, great lakes, rivers, bottled water, tap water, and air.
It’s essential to recognize that plastic is virtually indestructible. This means that plastic waste doesn’t biodegrade in the same way that organic matter does. Instead, it simply breaks down into smaller pieces that can be as small as one-one thousandth of one-one thousandth of a millimeter in size (i.e. nanometers).
Once they enter the environment, they can persist for hundreds of years, causing significant damage to the ecosystem. For example, a plastic bottle can take 450 years to decompose!
What Are The Different Types Of Microplastics
There are two types of microplastics, primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are commercially designed for personal products, fishing nets, and microfibers for clothing. Secondary microplastics are a result of decaying plastic items like water bottles and styrofoam.
Here are some more critical points about microplastics:
- They are often the result of plastic waste that breaks down into smaller sizes over time. They can come from both tap water and plastic bottles, although bottled water contains 2x as many microplastics per liter.
- Tire wear is another significant source of microplastics, which can be released into the air and ultimately find their way into water bodies.
- Personal care products such as facial scrubs, toothpaste, and cosmetics can contain microbeads, which can be washed down the drain and into our water supply. Legislation has been successfully passed in the US to ban microplastics in topical consumer products.
Tiny fibers from synthetic clothing fibers are also a significant source of microplastics.
Known as synthetic polymers, the most prominent microplastics found in the environment are polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PE), polystyrene (PS), polyester (PES), polyamide (PA, or Nylon), and acrylic (AC). Understanding the different sources and impacts of microplastics is essential in mitigating the environmental harm they can cause.
How Do Microplastics Get Into Drinking Water
Microplastics can enter drinking water sources through various pathways. Here are some of the ways how microplastics get into drinking water:
- Runoff from Landfills. As tiny pieces of plastics degrade, they break down into smaller pieces of plastic debris, which water can easily carry away.
- Wastewater Effluent. Tiny plastic particles can pass through the filter system in wastewater treatment plants and end up in the water from sewage sludge.
- Atmospheric Deposition. Plastic particles can be carried by the wind and deposited into rivers, lakes, and other water bodies.
- Agricultural Runoff. Plastic mulch and other materials used in farming can break down into microplastics and end up in water sources.
- Industrial Discharges. Plastics from manufacturing processes can be discharged into water bodies, leading to water contamination.
Is Microplastics In Drinking Water Harmful?
There is evidence that food and water contaminated with microplastics cause harm to marine life, and have negative health impacts on humans.
Microplastics have been found to contain toxic chemicals that can leach into the water and be ingested. When we consume microplastics from food (like fish) and water, our bodies absorb microplastics and their toxins. These microplastics and chemicals accumulate in our blood, fat cells, and organs.
Microplastic Effects On Humans
The presence of microplastics in our tap water, treatment plants, and bottled water has raised alarm bells about the impact on human health and the environment. What are the effects of it on humans?
Microplastics can enter the body through ingestion. When we consume contaminated food or water, microplastics can accumulate in our digestive tract and potentially cause inflammation and damage to our gut lining. Research has also suggested that microplastics can be absorbed into our bloodstream through our digestive system, potentially leading to systemic inflammatory bowel disease.
Microplastics can also enter our bodies through inhalation of air. Research has shown that microplastics are present in our air, particularly in urban areas. Microplastics can cause respiratory problems, such as coughing, wheezing, and reduced lung function when inhaled.
Microplastics contain chemicals, such as phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), known endocrine disruptors. These chemicals can mimic or interfere with the body’s natural hormones, potentially leading to reproductive and developmental problems and increased risk of certain cancers.
Research has found that microplastics can suppress the immune system and make us more vulnerable to infections and diseases.
Microplastics can also release toxic chemicals into the environment, which can enter the human body through ingestion or inhalation. These chemicals can cause neurological and reproductive disorders, cancer, and other chronic diseases. Microplastic particles are also a known vehicle for pollutants such as dioxins and heavy metals which can cause developmental and reproductive issues.
How To Test Water For Microplastics and Plastic Debris?
If you are specifically interested in the concentration of microplastics in your drinking water, the only way to know is by using a certified laboratory test.
I recommend using the Freshnss Labs water test package that scans for polypropylene, polyethylene, polystyrene particles, and polyvinyl chloride ranging between 1 microns and 5 microns in size.
The laboratory water test kit will provide all the necessary materials to collect and submit a sample to be analyzed in a certified lab. Within three business days, you will receive a detailed report with the specific microplastic levels detected, any health alerts, and the best treatment options based on your data.
Are Microplastics In Bottled Water?
Researchers have found that many bottled water brands contain microplastics and other additives. These microplastics can come from the packaging, production, or transportation of bottled water. Plastic bottled water can break down and release microplastics into the water.
Research carried out by Orb Media regarding plastic contamination in tap water showed that plastic fibers were present in 83% of the tested water samples from major cities across the globe. The study also revealed that 11 of the largest bottled water brands, obtained from 19 locations in 9 countries, had plastic fibers.
Is It Safe To Use Plastic Water Filters?
It is safe to use water filters made with high-quality plastic. As long as the filter isn’t subject to meaningful wear and tear, the release of microplastics will be non-existent or minimal.
When searching for water filters, ensure any plastic material is BPA-free so it does not seep into your filtered water. Although the FDA has said BPA is safe to consume at very low levels, you can reduce exposure by using filters that do not contain any plastic. You can also use glass or stainless-steel storage containers to hold your water instead of a plastic container.
How To Remove Microplastics From Drinking Water
There are several methods for removing microplastics from drinking water. Some of the most effective ways include reverse osmosis, water distillation, and ultrafiltration. Whichever filtration method you choose, ensure the micron rating is 5 or less to remove the most prevalent types of microplastics in tap water.
Reverse osmosis is a filtration process that uses a semi-permeable membrane to remove contaminants from water. The water is forced through the membrane, leaving behind any particle larger than the membrane’s pores, including microplastics. This process removes can remove up to 100% of microplastics from drinking water.
This method is effective at eliminating microplastics, as well as other pollutants such as lead, arsenic, and fluoride.
Water distillation is a process that involves boiling water and collecting the steam, which is then condensed back into water. As a result, you get distilled water that is free of microplastics.
To create distilled water at home, you can get a countertop distillation unit that will typically cost around $100. The only downside is the process takes considerable time and requires a fair amount of energy.
Ultrafiltration is a process that involves passing water through a membrane with pores that are a fraction of a micron in size. This treatment is used frequently in wastewater treatment plants as a way to remove microplastics from the drinking water supply. It is in fact very effective. A recent study demonstrated that ultrafiltration removes up to 97% of microplastic particles from drinking water.
The downside to ultrafiltration is that it can be expensive to install and maintain, and the membrane can clog quickly.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does all drinking water have microplastics?
While the levels of microplastics in water vary depending on the source, it is safe to assume that microplastics can be found in most drinking water supplies. In the United States, 94% of tap water samples were found to contain microplastics.
Can water filters remove microplastics?
At-home water filters such as reverse osmosis, water distillation, and carbon block filters are capable of removing microplastics. You will want filters with smaller pores for them to be effective in removing microplastics in your tap water.
Do Brita filters remove microplastics?
While Brita filters effectively remove some contaminants but is not explicitly designed to remove microplastics. Brita filters can remove larger components, such as sediment and chlorine, but they may not be more effective at removing smaller particles, such as microplastics.
Can I store water in a plastic container?
It is generally recommended to store water in plastic bottles or containers for a short period. Imagine one plastic can break down over time and release microplastics into the water. It is recommended to store water in glass, porcelain, or stainless steel containers, which do not release microplastics into the water. Minimize the use of plastics.
How does plastic waste affect the environment?
Plastic waste can harm wildlife, damage ecosystems, and contribute to climate change through the production and disposal of plastics. It can also leach toxic chemicals into soil and water