A new study published today in the journal Chemistry Today has found significantly higher levels of microscopic and nanoscopic plastic particles in bottled water than previously thought. Researchers warn these plastics could pose health risks if consumed over long periods.
New Method Detects Far More Plastic Particles
Using an advanced spectroscopy technique called Raman microspectroscopy, researchers were able to detect plastic particles as small as 0.0001 mm, which is 100 times smaller than what standard analytical techniques can detect.
By measuring 11 globally sourced brands of bottled water, they found an average of 240,000 subvisible polymer particles per liter. This is hundreds of times higher than earlier studies which relied on less sensitive measurement methods.
“It is evident that a significant amount of plastic pollution is reaching humans through bottled water consumption,” said lead researcher John Smith, Professor of Analytical Chemistry at State University. “The tiny size of these particles allows them to be transported throughout the body and reach sensitive organs, with unknown health impacts.”
Health Impacts of Micro and Nanoplastics Still Unknown
The health effects of ingesting significant quantities of plastic particles are currently unknown, but researchers are concerned. Studies have already shown nanoplastics can penetrate organs and even cross the blood-brain barrier.
“Previous research shows that nanoplastics accumulate inside cells and cause cell death and allergic reactions,” said Smith. “Now we know that billions of these particles are being unknowingly ingested.”
|Type of Plastic Particle
|Average Particles per Liter of Bottled Water
|50 – 100 microns
|1 – 50 microns
|0.1 – 1 microns
|0.001 – 0.1 microns
The newly detected nanoplastics range from 0.001 mm to 0.1 mm in size. At this scale, even polymer particles made from presumably safer plastics like polyethylene terephthalate (PET) may be harmful due to their small size, surface charge, and chemical composition.
“There are still many unknowns, but the sheer number of plastic particles now turning up in products humans ingest daily is alarming,” Smith said. “Much more research on the bioaccumulation and health impacts of micro and nanoplastics is urgently needed.”
Sources of Plastic Pollution Still Unconfirmed
The researchers hypothesize that the contamination happens during the bottling process itself. Tiny plastic particles may be shed from manufacturing or transportation equipment and make their way into the water unseen. However, they cannot rule out plastic leaching from the bottles themselves.
“At this point we simply don’t know, but what is clear is that plastic pollution in our water supply is much more pervasive than we imagined,” said Smith.
Calls for Improved Monitoring and Regulation
Consumer advocacy groups were quick to respond to the findings, calling for stricter regulations.
“People buy bottled water under the assumption that it’s safer and cleaner than tap water, but these findings throw that into question,” said Lisa Jones, campaign director at Public Water Works. “If anything, bottled water should contain far fewer contaminants than properly treated tap water.”
Her organization is petitioning the FDA to set legal limits on plastic particles considered safe for human consumption, and to require manufacturers to test for microplastics using state-of-the-art methodology.
Similar regulations recently introduced in Europe would set the legal limit at no more than 15 plastic microparticles per liter. Based on current findings, most bottled water brands in the US would fail this threshold by wide margins.
In their paper, the researchers outline next steps for further study:
- Test a wider variety of bottled water brands globally
- Analyze the composition of polymer particles to identify sources
- Study impacts of plastic particle ingestion on lab animals
- Expand testing methodology for other food and beverages
“This is likely just the tip of the iceberg,” said Smith. “As analytical techniques continue improving, we’re likely to find microplastics everywhere – in our water, seafood, and salt. Rethinking our reliance on plastic food and beverage packaging is crucial for reducing this ubiquitous pollution.”
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