Why microplastics in bottled water might be a big deal

A plastic bottle is recycled.
A plastic bottle is recycled.

Disposable water bottles are a concern for many because, first, they are an environmental nightmare.  Second, they are incredibly overpriced.

But let’s ignore both those facts for a moment and think about that refreshing cold bottle of water on a hot day.

Imagine opening a bottle of water, expecting a pure and refreshing drink, only to learn that you're also consuming tiny particles known as microplastics. Recent studies have raised concerns about the presence of these minuscule particles in bottled water and their potential impact on health and the environment.

Recent findings from Columbia University and Rutgers University have unveiled alarming levels of microplastics and nanoplastics in bottled water, far surpassing previous estimates.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, discovered about 240,000 plastic fragments per liter, challenging our perceptions of water purity. Think about that again — a one-liter bottle of water has 240,000 tiny bits of plastic in it!

Microplastics, larger than nanoplastics, alongside these even tinier particles, pose potential health risks due to their ability to be mistaken for natural cell components. Employing advanced techniques like stimulated Raman scattering (SRS) microscopy, researchers identified these particles, shedding light on the growing issue of plastic pollution.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are plastic particles smaller than five millimeters.

They can come from larger plastic items that degrade over time or from consumer products like cosmetics that purposefully have microplastics in their formula. Unfortunately, these tiny particles have found their way into our oceans, rivers, and now, bottled water.

Why is this a growing concern?

The widespread use of plastics and inadequate disposal have led to an increase in microplastic pollution. As plastics break down, they form microplastics, which are then ingested by marine life and can make their way up the food chain to humans.

The discovery of microplastics in bottled water suggests that no water source is immune to contamination, highlighting the pervasive nature of plastic pollution.

Scientists also tested tap water. Microplastics were detected in the tap water, but in much smaller quantities.  This brings up the question of why bottled water has so much more microplastics in them.

A few bottled water companies wondered if it was the grinding caused by putting the cap on and off that added so many microscopic plastic bits. More testing will have to be done to figure out the cause.

Potential health consequences

While research is still ongoing, there is concern about the potential health impacts of consuming microplastics. These particles can carry toxins that, once ingested, may pose risks to human health. Additionally, the long-term effects of microplastic ingestion are not yet fully understood, raising questions about chronic exposure.

People are most worried about kids. Adults grew up most of their lives without microplastics being a big deal. Sure, now pretty much all adults are accumulating microplastics in their body but, for kids, this will now happen their entire lives.

What are the consequences of 80-plus years of microplastic build-up in the blood and tissue? Nobody knows, as it hasn’t been a thing before. This unknown is what scientists are most worried about.

This groundbreaking study emphasizes the urgent need for further research on the health implications of plastic consumption and calls for a reevaluation of our reliance on plastic products.

What can we do?

Reducing plastic use and improving recycling are critical steps in addressing microplastic pollution. Choosing tap water (which is far more regulated in the United States) over bottled water and supporting policies aimed at reducing plastic waste can help minimize our exposure to microplastics and protect the environment.

Mike Szydlowski is a science teacher and zoo facilitator at Jefferson STEAM School.

TIME FOR A POP QUIZ

What are microplastics and how do they enter our water sources?

Why has the discovery of microplastics in bottled water raised concerns?

How were microplastics detected in bottled water in the recent study?

What potential health risks are associated with consuming microplastics?

What steps can individuals take to reduce their exposure to microplastics?

LAST WEEK'S QUIZ ANSWERS

How do harmful germs enter our bodies to start the invasion stage?

Germs can enter our body through the air we breathe, the food we eat, touching our eyes, or cuts on our skin.

What role do leukocytes play in our immune system?

Leukocytes act as scouts, identifying foreign invaders using specific markers on their surfaces to trigger a targeted immune response.

How does previous exposure to an invader or vaccination affect our immune response?  

If our body has encountered the invader before or has been vaccinated, it can quickly eliminate the threat, often preventing us from feeling sick.

Why does fever occur during an illness?

Fever is a defense mechanism that makes our body's environment less hospitable to invaders, stimulates the immune system, and reduces the replication rate of microbes.

What does sweating signify during the recovery stage of being sick?

Sweating during recovery helps cool the body down to its normal temperature, signaling that the body has nearly won the fight against the pathogens.

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Why microplastics in bottled water might be a big deal