Microplastics in drinking water not a health hazard, says WHO

Myths surrounding the harm that various chemicals used to create plastic can do to humans have been around for decades. First there was the “don’t heat your food in a plastic container in a microwave because the chemicals (dioxins, bisphenol-A and phthalates) will leach out and poison you. According to several reports, including one from Harvard Medical and Web MD, the one about dioxins is a myth.

Myth-busting file folder

Dioxins are released into the atmosphere when garbage and organic matter are burned. The dioxins then fall back to Earth and animals eat the grains and grasses and we eat the animals. Of course these dioxins also fall onto our vegetable gardens, so it’s a losing battle. However, the real key here is that you can’t be harmed by dioxins from plastic because plastic doesn’t contain dioxins!

As for bisphenol-A (BPA), which is used to make clear, hard plastic, and phthalates, used to make soft, flexible plastic, several decades of studies and experiments have shown that BPA in the minute amounts that humans are exposed to has shown no evidence of being harmful. The same is true of phthalates. Of course one of the things that makes plastics so durable is that the molecular chains that create these materials are so tightly connected that they cannot easily be broken apart.

As for heating food in a plastic dish in a microwave, food would have to heated to temperatures above 700°F before the plastic would start breaking down enough to release any chemicals. By that time your food would be burned so badly you wouldn’t eat it anyway.

Now, on to microplastics, which we’ve been told are floating around in our drinking water and come from polymer textiles and other types of plastic products in the environment. A new report dated Aug. 21, 2019, from the World Health Organization (WHO; Geneva) says not to worry. “[J]ust because we’re ingesting them doesn’t mean we have a risk to human health,” said Bruce Gordon, WHO’s coordinator of water, sanitation and hygiene, in an Associated Press report. “The main conclusion is, I think, if you are a consumer drinking bottled or tap water, you shouldn’t necessarily be concerned.”

The fear that these microplastics can enter the human body and cause harm is not backed by science. “Based on the limited evidence available, chemicals and microbial pathogens associated with microplastics in drinking water pose a low concern for human health,” stated the report. “Although there is insufficient information to draw firm conclusions on the toxicity of nanoparticles, no reliable information suggests it is a concern.”

While it might call for further research, the WHO does not recommend investing effort in monitoring for microplastics in drinking water because resources would be better spent removing pathogens, a proven risk, according to an article in the Guardian.

WHO’s Gordon agrees, mentioning typhoid and cholera as being more worrisome than microplastics. “[Typhoid and cholera] are things that cause immediate illness and can kill a million people,” he said.

Image: iQoncept/Adobe Stock

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