If you start your workday, as I do, by checking your “plastics” newsfeed, you would have been bombarded the last couple of mornings with articles about a study showing that plastic particles are in our tap water. A global study carried out by Orb Media, an independent non-profit news site, and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health claims to have found that micro-plastic fibers are present in more than 80% of water samples collected on all five continents. To make matters worse, writes Orb, “microplastics have been shown to absorb toxic chemicals linked to cancer and other illnesses, and then release them when consumed by fish and mammals.” And because of their size—plastics can break down into nanometer-scale particles—they could potentially migrate through the intestinal wall and travel to nymph nodes and other organs, writes Orb.
Orb Media shared the findings of its study with British daily the Guardian, which states that “overall 83% of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibers.” The United States has the highest contamination rate at 94%—interestingly, Trump Tower in New York and the Environmental Protection Agency were among the test sites—followed by Lebanon and India. The United Kingdom, Germany and France had the lowest rates, but they still averaged 72%. “The average number of fibers found in each 500-ml sample ranged from 4.8 in the U.S. to 1.9 in Europe,” writes the Guardian. Germany, incidentally, was horrified to learn that plastic particles were found in all of the 24 brands of beer that were tested. That’s something the vaunted Reinheitsgebot, the strict law first enacted in the 16th century that regulates the purity of Germany's national beverage, never envisaged.
To state the obvious, PlasticsToday is a business-to-business media outlet and we think plastics are pretty fantastic. We try to be balanced, but don’t shy away from questioning some of the dubious claims put forth—notably regarding health concerns related to PVC and polycarbonate—and like to remind everyone that the plastics industry is a mammoth economic engine of the global economy. In the United States alone, it accounts for almost one million jobs and ships upward of $420 billion of goods each year. The people working in this industry are neither evil nor complacent about the impact their industry might have on the environment. You knew that, but based on some of the Facebook rants we receive, it’s not a given among some segments of the population.
That said, if this study was conducted using proper scientific methodology and without a preordained agenda, it must give one pause. Quoting a professor of environmental health at London’s King’s College, the Guardian notes that research is needed to determine whether ingesting plastic particles is, indeed, a health risk. It is also not known just how these particles end up in drinking water, although there is speculation that fibers shed by clothes and carpets end up in the atmosphere and drift to earth. The Guardian also posits that tumble dryers, which are used in 80% of U.S. households, typically vent to the open air and also could be a source.
There are some simple things we can all do to prevent plastics from contaminating our environment. Clearly, people need to stop discarding plastic products and make full use of recycling technologies, which have made tremendous advances in the last few years. The “new plastics economy,” developed by the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation, offers an avenue for eliminating plastic waste entirely and aligning plastics with the principles of a circular economy.
The plastics industry and its associations have made valiant efforts to promote sustainable practices, and these initiatives must continue and be amplified. There is a segment of the population that will dismiss them out of hand because they are coming from corporate interests, but we should not let that deter us from doing what’s right. And, yes, we need to keep reminding people of the beneficial aspects of plastics, from preserving our food to improving the safety of medical procedures.
A final word: As I like to stress to my millennial daughter when she is outraged by something she read online, consider the source. Orb Media does not appear to be peddling fake news, to use the phrase du jour. Unlike some of the activist organizations that like to pillory plastics under the cloak of health concerns, Orb is a non-profit news organization that seeks to produce a “new kind of journalism” that reports on issues from an interconnected global and cross-cultural perspective. The language is lofty but not partisan, as far as I can tell.
And, let’s face it: Nobody wants plastic particles in their drinking water or, heaven forbid, beer.