Water water everywhere, but what’s in the bottles we drink?
1 million plastic water bottles are purchased each minute, worldwide. But, are we really getting what we pay for, or is there a hidden truth inside each bottle we guzzle?
The answer lies in recent findings by the World Health Organisation (WHO): revealing that 90% of the world’s 11 best-selling water brands-Nestlé’s San Pellegrino, PepsiCo’s Aquafina and Danone’s Aqua, to name a few- contain water contaminated with particles of plastic. A study of 259 water bottles collected from 19 separate locations across 9 different countries (the US, China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Lebanon, Kenya and Thailand) identifies high levels of microplastics in all but 17 of the bottles sampled. The results show an average of 325 plastic particles per litre of water. Worse still, Nestlé’s Pure Life is found to contain concentrations of up to 10,000 plastic particles per litre. Perhaps this is a misleading brand name, given its a little less than pure water. To put these figures into perspective, consuming water contaminated with microplastics every day would mean ingesting as much as 237,250 plastic particles per year.
Beyond the shocking numbers, the real questions to answer are how can we determine this and what does it mean to human health.
Scientists at the State University of New York in Fredonia- commissioned by the journalism project, ‘Orb Media’- analysed the bottled water using a special dye called Nile Red. Only plastic particles fluoresce on adhesion to the dye, making them easily identifiable among other natural substances. Despite the study being published in a journal, but not yet peer reviewed, Dr. Andrew Mayes, a scientist at the University of East Anglia, and pioneer of the Nile Red technique, assures Orb Media that it was ‘carefully and appropriately applied’, matching his use of it in the lab.
1 million plastic water bottles are purchased each minute, worldwide
So, if this is true and we are ingesting thousands of microplastic particles without even knowing it, are there already unprecedented impacts on our health that need addressing? There is undoubtedly widespread concern, shared by the Campaign organisation ‘Story of Stuff’ who discovered microplastic concentrations as high as 58.6 particles per litre in a study of 19 water brands, including Boxed Water, Ice Mountain and Fiji Water in the US. Unsurprisingly, there is an increasing sense of urgency to know where on earth the plastic is coming from. Abigail Barrows, conductor of Story of Stuff’s research in her laboratory, explains that the plastic may have several origins- namely airborne plastic fibres inside and outside of factories, dispersed by fans or on clothing worn by workers. Indeed, State University’s Sherri Mason reported that 4% of the plastic particles identified were derived from plastic lubricants used industrially.
However, research is met with some controversy, with Nestlé professing to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that the Nile Red technique may ‘generate false positives’, so results cannot be seen as fact. Furthermore, Coca- Cola explain to the BBC that the company uses strict filtration methods, but- understanding the ubiquity of plastics in the environment- openly acknowledge the possibility of very low levels existing in even heavily treated products. Although, companies Danone and The American Beverage Association contest the study’s findings, indicating that the methodology lacks clarity and that the science of microplastics is a novel field. Others agree that there are currently no regulations on the use of microplastics, coupled with a lack of standardised testing for them.
But, have we a signifiant reason to panic? Richard Thompson, at Plymouth University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, reminds us that there’s no concrete evidence of human health risks. More importantly, he adds that bottled water is merely one route of microplastic exposure, and a minimal one too, with a greater risk posed by airborne dust particles, textile fibres and food sources such as crustaceans and shellfish, that absorb the particles from sea water. This is ratified by the Food and Agriculture Organisation; their 2017 study surrounding microplastic contamination of seafood indicates that consumer risks are marginal, though merit further investigation.
bottled water is merely one route of microplastic exposure
In support of this, previous studies involving rodents and dogs conclude that microplastics greater than 150 micrometers (little more than the width of a human hair) cannot be absorbed, so are excreted in faeces. In fact, over 90% of ingested microplastics will pass through consumers in this way. Nevertheless, abnormally high concentrations of microplastics- millions of particles per day- show serious damage to the animals studied, including liver inflammation and immunosuppression. Yet, these effects are unseen in humans to date.
Whilst alternative modes of ingestion, such as fish consumption, are possible, this again need not instill panic, as build up only occurs in their guts, which are routinely removed prior to consumption. Underlying the mass consumption of bottled water across the globe is a more pressing concern: ‘the environmental impact of producing and transporting something you really don’t need’, when tap water is freely available. Therefore, we need to look at the bigger picture.
The rampant implications of plastic pollution lie a little deeper than our supermarket shelves: in the ocean. On top of mounting damage to marine life from oil spills, rising sea levels and climate change, recent reports state that the amount of plastic in our ocean is forecast to treble within the next decade.
Alas, we currently know more about the surface of the moon and Mars than we do about our own ocean- particularly worrying when there’s set to be 9 billion of us looking to it for food.
we currently know more about the surface of the moon and Mars than we do about our own ocean
Underwater photographer, Caroline Power, comments on her recent footage of the ‘sea of plastic’ stretching miles across the Caribbean ocean: ‘one of the most devastating and disgusting things that you could imagine to see in the water’.
With countries such as the UK using 13 billion plastic water bottles each year, of which a mere 3 billion are recycled, we are destroying an industrial goldmine. Beneath the monstrous mass of polystyrene bottles and cutlery littering the waters is an ‘Ocean Economy’ set to be worth £2 trillion by 2030.
A whole host of marine organisms are threatened by ingestion of, and ensnarement by, toxic plastics causing injury and death, marks the latest Future of the Sea report. This is compounded by the build up of E.coli bacteria colonising the blanket of plastic, which poses the risk of infections, not only to marine life in coastal regions, but to humans too. Meanwhile, the chief scientist for the UK government’s environmental department, Ian Boyd, advises us not to disregard the growing range of pollutants that pervade the ocean: ‘run-off pesticides and fertilisers from farms, industrial toxins…and pharmaceuticals’. Consequently, as we make our exit from the EU, we have a prime opportunity to bring the sea to the forefront of Britain’s agenda. We must shift our focus towards protecting the rich biodiversity in the seas, which are at the heart of the food industry.
the amount of plastic in our ocean is forecast to treble within the next decade
Yet, reading this is easy. Action is the real challenge- one that’ll take much more than a 5p levy on plastic bags. For our hopes to become a reality, efforts to lower the amount of plastic entering the sea must be implemented, such as wider promotion of biodegradable plastics and campaigns to spread awareness about marine protection. Today, 50% of plastic bags are used just once, then thrown away, admits Plastic Oceans; plastic should be reusable, not disposable.
Thankfully there are ways we can resolve this: incineration of waste plastic to harness its energy, or conversion of plastic back to useful fuels. This is a business, government and consumer responsibility, achievable through legislation, education and changes to technology used to manufacture and recycle plastics. With sustainable waste management and widespread awareness of the role each and every one of the 7.8 billion of us has to play will enable the government to set and accomplish clear goals to resolve plastic pollution.
By Scarlett Parr Reid
For more on plastic pollution oceans, have a look at Ayesha Tandon’s article on microplastics