What’s in your water? Microplastics, apparently, but how concerning should that be?

Water bottles in supermarket

Reviewing the potential risks of microplastics in drinking water, the World Health Organization (WHO; Geneva, Switzerland) analyzed the content of some of the world’s most popular bottled water brands and found that more than 90% contained tiny pieces of microplastics (between 0.33 and 5 mm). The study, reported a year ago, analyzed 259 bottles from 19 locations in nine countries across 11 different brands and found an average of 325 microplastic particles in every liter of water being sold. Only 17 of the 259 bottles tested were free of microplastics, said an article in British newspaper the Guardian. One bottle of Nestlé Pure Life reportedly had microplastic concentrations as high as 10,000 pieces per liter of water.

The tests were performed by scientists at State University of New York (SUNY), who were commissioned by journalism project ORB Media to analyze bottled water. The most common plastic particle found was polypropylene. The Guardian’s article did not note that the study had not been published in a journal at that time and had not been through scientific peer review.  Additionally, a WHO spokesperson told the Guardian that there was not—at that time—“any evidence” of impact on human health.            

A news release this week from Showerstoyou.co.uk, cited this study from last year, noting that the second worst bottled water came from India’s Bisleri, which contained 5,230 microplastic particles. In fact, SUNY researchers tested just about every type of bottled water available, all of which had some level of microplastics. The lowest was San Pellegrino with 74 microplastic particles. The second lowest was Evian with 256 particles.

While everyone is paying attention to microplastic content in their water, which has been determined to be not harmful to humans (or animals, I presume, since my cat drinks bottled water and he’s 15 years old), an updated report came out today (April 18) in Consumer Reports stating that arsenic has been found at unsafe levels in some bottled water brands.

Arsenic, as everyone knows, is found naturally in the environment. It is a semi-metallic chemical found all over the world in groundwater, soil and even the air we breathe. It is an element that is taken up by plants as they grow, which means that our food contains arsenic. However, it is only harmful in huge amounts. In trace amounts found in our food and water, it’s not a problem.

Where do the microplastic particles come from? We know they’re not falling off the insides of the bottles. After all, the thing that makes plastic durable is the fact that the molecules bond together very tightly and those bonds are extremely difficult to break. Are the microplastic particles coming from the water being bottled, even if that water is coming from underground springs? If arsenic is in the water in underground springs, perhaps there are microplastics in the spring water as well.

Obviously not all bottled water comes from underground aquifers. Some is purified tap water from city water sources. So, perhaps, the microplastics are in city water sources that then gets into the bottled water along with the arsenic.

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