Did you know that if you drink water and eat food (and who doesn't?), you are probably consuming 5 grams of plastic every week? That's the amount of plastic in a typical credit card!
According to a study by the World Wildlife Fund, the average person ingests that much in the form of microplastics on a weekly basis. And most of it comes from the water we drink.
In this article, we'll take a look at what microplastics are, how they get into our water, and what we know about how they affect us. And, we'll talk about the best ways to reduce or eliminate them from our drinking water.
What are microplastics?
There is no official scientific definition of microplastics, but, in general, the term microplastics refers to particles of plastic less than 5mm in length. They can be in the form of fibers, beads, fragments, or even dust.
Microplastics are divided into two groups: primary and secondary
Primary microplastics are designed for commercial use. This group includes tiny plastic beads used in cosmetics and synthetic fibers used in fabrics and other textiles.
Secondary microplastics are tiny bits that come from larger plastic articles breaking down over time. Often you'll see these fragments washed up on a beach or floating in a river or lake.
Unfortunately, microplastics can turn up in the water we drink, the food we eat, and in the air we breathe. Most of the time we don't notice them because they're so tiny.
Where do most microplastics come from?
Some of the sources of microplastics are obvious, and some are not so obvious.
Despite our best efforts, millions of tons of plastic trash like bottles, forks, food containers, and bags end up in our water systems every year. That's the most visible source of plastic pollution.
But there are lots of other ways we allow microplastics into the environment.
Take your clothing, for example.
Synthetic fibers like polyester, acrylic and nylon are actually forms of plastic. And more than half of all the clothing in the world is made of synthetics. So, every time you do your laundry, the fabric sheds fibers that go down the drain and into the water system.
What's more, when you're wearing synthetics, tiny fibers are constantly coming off and floating into the air. The same goes for carpeting and furniture upholstery.
Other sources include dust from tires wearing down and paint dust from buildings and road markings. Most of that plastic gets washed by rain into sewers and streams.
Microbeads in cosmetics and personal care items have been banned in the US and Canada, but many of them were released into the water system when they were still legal. They haven't been banned everywhere, though, so it's still a problem in some parts of the world.
Are microplastics in my drinking water?
There's a very good chance that your drinking water has microplastics in it. In fact, it's one of the main ways we ingest plastic.
A 10-year study conducted by Orb found that 84% of tap water samples worldwide contained microplastic fibers. For the US, the percentage was even higher - 94%!
Water treatment plants aren't designed to deal with microplastics, although they do help eliminate a great deal of it. Some of the smallest particles, though, can escape into the drinking water supply. Most often they're in the form of fibers, which aren't always visible.
And, another problem is that the plastic particles they do block stay in the sewage sludge, which is often used for fertilizers. So the microplastics return to the ecosystem and end up in the waters again.
But, don't fool yourself into thinking that bottled water is a better choice than tap water.
Studies have shown that bottled water has about twice as many microplastics as tap water! It's likely that the contamination comes from the packaging and/or the bottling process.
Are microplastics in water really a problem?
No one likes the idea of drinking plastic with their water, but is it actually harmful?
There hasn't been much scientific research done on the effects of microplastics in drinking water, but there has been some. We don't know exactly what they do to us, but there must be some kind of effect, and it can't be good.
It's thought that our bodies can't absorb plastic, but we know that plastics adsorb and release chemicals. So, by taking in plastics, we're being exposed to substances that are known to be harmful - like BPA and phthalates.
In addition, research on animals suggests that it's possible for plastics to enter the blood or lymphatic system. And that means they could accumulate in organs and cause problems.
Even more alarming, in 2020, researchers at the University of Arizona examined 47 samples from deceased people's organs and found traces of plastic in every one. This was the first time that plastics were found in human organs.
Could this be caused by microplastics degrading further into ultrafine nanoparticles? It's likely, but we'll have to wait for more research to give us the answer.
A 2019 World Health Organization (WHO) report on microplastics in drinking water stated:
“Based on the limited information we have, microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels. But we need to find out more. We also need to stop the rise in plastic pollution worldwide.”
Whether or not it's truly harmful remains to be investigated, and it's something we'll all want to pay attention to in the future.
How do you remove microplastics from drinking water?
Here's the good news:
It's possible to eliminate microplastics from your drinking water with a water filter.
Carbon block filters, ceramic filters, and reverse osmosis systems are all able to filter out small plastic bits and fibers. That's because the pores in the filters are much smaller than the microplastics and will effectively block them as the water passes through the system.
Many water filter pitchers, countertop gravity filters, and under-the-sink filters use carbon and/or ceramic filters. Reverse osmosis systems generally use a carbon filter in conjunction with a reverse osmosis membrane, providing excellent filtration.
For more information on these types of water filtration systems, please see my reviews:
Conclusion: Drink filtered tap water to avoid microplastics
It's just about impossible to avoid contact with plastic in today's world. But there are steps we can take to lessen its impact on our health.
Consuming water contaminated with microplastics is of the main ways we ingest plastic, but it's also an easy problem to solve.
The key to drinking plastic-free water is to steer clear of bottled water and limit yourself to drinking only filtered tap water.
If you don't already own a water filter, what are you waiting for? Take a few minutes today to check out the reviews I mentioned above, and find a filter that eliminates microplastics.
Or, you can start here: How to Choose the Best Water Filter for Your Home
You don't have to spend a lot of money. There are filters to suit every budget. And remember - investing in a water filter is investing in your health and future well-being.
And that's worth every penny.
- Microplastics, National Geographic Resource Library
- Microplastics in drinking-water, World Health Organization
- Invisibles: The Plastic Inside Us, Chris Tyree and Dan Morrison
- How worried should we be about microplastics?, The Guardian
- Microplastics Detected in 100 Percent of Human Organs Sampled, Green Matters
- Microplastics are Everywhere, But Their Health Effects on Humans are Still Unclear, Discover Magazine
- More than ever, our clothes are made of plastic. Just washing them can pollute the oceans., Brian Resnick
Last Updated on April 7, 2022