We cannot escape our plastic problem. Every day, we eat food and buy products that contain or have been packaged in plastic. Now we are starting to learn how that plastic never really leaves us. The first major study of microscopic plastic in drinking water has found widespread contamination of drinking water in cities around the world. With every glass of water we drink, we consume plastic.
Orb Media and a researcher at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health tested drinking water from the taps in major cities on five continents, and found that more than 83 percent — 94 percent in the US — contained microscopic particles of plastic. These particles come from the everyday abrasive wear on carpets, furniture, tires, paints and clothing, as well as from microbeads and the partial degradation of other plastic materials.
A large source of plastic microfibers is our plastic-based clothing. A single garment can shed thousands of plastic fibers in a single wash. Moving through the wastewater treatment system and into the environment, these fibers are accumulating in every body of water, and have been found at the deepest levels of the ocean. Since these tiny particles exist in our water, they are now infiltrating our food sources. The sheer volume of plastic in the environment means that it is accumulating in the bodies of the fish, wildlife, and livestock we eat, as well as in our drinking water. That means it’s in humans too.
No government has established a “safe threshold” for the amount of plastic fibers humans can ingest, but we are already seeing the effects of plastic on wildlife. Scientists are finding that plastic fibers are “weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract” of Great Lakes Fish. Plastics give off hormone-disrupting chemicals that have been associated with cancer, birth defects, learning disorders, feminization in male invertebrates — and possibly declining human male fertility.
“Endocrine disrupting chemicals that are omnipresent, such as bisphenol A, are one of the defining human health challenges of our times,” said Natacha Cingotti, a spokeswoman for Europe’s Health and Environment Alliance.
Plastic never entirely breaks down. Every piece of plastic ever made still exists, at least in small parts. Even the plastic that does break down degrades into particles on the nanometer scale — but tiny doesn’t mean harmless. In fact, these tiny plastic particles — as small as one-one thousandth of one-one thousandth of a millimeter — can permeate the intestinal wall and migrate through the body to the lymph nodes and other organs. The 10-month study found an average number of 4.8 plastic fibers per 500 ml (16 ounces) of water. In Germany, chemists found plastic fragments in 24 types of beers.
It’s also in our air. A 2016 study in France found that three to ten tons of microfibers rain out of the air onto the 1,098-square-mile region surrounding Paris each year.
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