Tips for Taps Blog

Microplastics in Drinking Water

Are Microplastics in My Drinking Water?

 

Microplastics are in the environment and they are here to stay. 

Plastic doesn’t decompose or break down the way that organic matter does, so when large pieces of plastic degrade into smaller bits, they persist in the environment indefinitely.

Almost all of the plastic ever manufactured is still on earth…and we're finding it everywhere. [1]. From inside our bodies (lungs, blood, placenta) to our oceans, and as you might be guessing… and our drinking water.[2],[3],[4]

What Are Microplastics?

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic, measuring less than five millimeters in length. That’s about the size of a sesame seed, and they can be as small as the period at the end of this sentence (or smaller).

While you might be familiar with large plastic gyres in the ocean, a recent study suggests that most of the plastic waste in the ocean is not visible on the surface, but rather hidden as microplastics in the water and in marine life.[5]

An easily recognizable form of microplastics in our everyday life is microbeads–those tiny beads found in face washes and toothpaste. While those microbeads may make your teeth shine and your face shimmer, they’re ending up everywhere in our environment, including our drinking water.

In 2015, President Barack Obama banned microbeads in personal care products and several other countries followed suit. The problem, however, is far from over. Microplastics continue to end up in oceans, lakes, inside of animals, and even in drinking water from other sources (like clothing).

Where Do Microplastics Come From?

Much of what we manufacture and use (and a huge chunk of our waste) contains plastic.

Microplastics come from tires rubbing against pavement, from synthetic clothes, and from paint dust floating through the air.

Most microplastics are in the form of microfibers. A study commissioned by Patagonia found that a single fleece coat can release up to 250,000 microfibers in one washing cycle.[6]

Are There Microplastics in My Drinking Water?

The short answer? Probably–according to a recent study by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and Orb media.[7],[8]

Plastic has long been a problem for ocean and lake ecosystems, leading to the emerging field of study on microplastics. [9],[10] Knowing how pervasive plastic is in our world and our waters, the question remains: What does it mean for our drinking water?

Researchers at the University of Minnesota and journalists at Orb sampled drinking water from metropolitan areas around the world. Overall, they found that 81%of samples contained microplastics.[7]

In the US alone, 94% percent of drinking water samples were found to contain microplastics.

While we typically recommend drinking tap water, that recommendation comes with a caveat: you should test it to ensure that  what you're drinking is safe.

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Microplastics Water Test
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Can Microplastics Affect My Health?

Studies have shown that plastic can absorb toxic chemicals in the environment and leach them out.[11] Put simply, plastic can carry toxic chemicals and then release them later on, exposing people to harmful chemicals. This happens after people have ingested microplastics, but also from drinking bottled water that’s been left in the sun. Those toxic chemicals–such as bisphenol A (BPA) and di-(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP), which can disrupt hormone levels–can stay in your gut or move to affect other tissues.[12]

Research has shown that microplastics can also be a vehicle for pollutants such as metals and dioxins, which can cause reproductive and developmental problems.[13]

As plastics break down into smaller and smaller particles, they can infiltrate into tissues, making their way into the bloodstream. Most research has been conducted on the effects of ingesting plastic in wildlife populations, but similar research is beginning with humans.[14]

As microplastics are a relatively recent field of study, the effects of microplastics on human health remain largely unknown.

If Microplastics are bad, why is my water filter made out of plastic?

Filter housing has been made from plastic for many years, far before microplastics were brought to the public's attention, for the same reasons that many products are made from plastic: mainly their low price and versatility.

It's also important to recognize that your filter housing may not contribute a significant amount of microplastics into the water that is being treated, though we haven't seen any studies on this particular subject. If the plastic is of a high quality and isn't experiencing a lot of wear and tear, the release of microplastics will be minimized.

 

Do the bottles in bottled water leach microplastics?

Various studies have shown that bottled water does contain microplastics and, interestingly, they are found in water both bottled in glass and plastic bottles. The amount of microplastics in bottled water depends on a variety of factors including: if the bottle is plastic--the type and quality of plastic that the bottle is made out of and the amount of wear and tear that the bottle has sustained from repeatedly opening and closing the bottle, and, for any bottle material, various processes at the bottling plant that may contaminate the water (e.g., in one study labeling pigments were found in high concentrations in water bottled in glass, indicating that the bottle cleaning process wasn't effective).

This is all to say that the bottles (as well as the lids, labels and other additives) can release microplastics into bottled water. It is also estimated that bottled water contains higher (sometimes much higher) concentrations of microplastics when compared with tap water, thus the consumption of bottled water over tap water likely leads to more exposure to microplastics.

 

Can I store water in a plastic container? Won't it leach microplastics into my water? 

You can definitely store water in a plastic container and this is very common. The plastic container is likely to release microplastics into your water especially if it is opened and closed repeatedly or is of poor quality plastic, as is the case with bottled water.
Note that the water you put into the container may already contain microplastics and that containers made of other materials besides plastic may release microplastics into the water as well.

 

Can I Filter Microplastics Out of My Water?

While studies indicate that most water does contain microplastic particles, there is some good news. 

Even though we don't yet know what the health impacts really are, there are a few ways you can filter your water that will likely remove microplastics:

  1. Carbon filter
  2. Reverse osmosis
  3. Ion exchange

In selecting a treatment technology, check the pore-size. Microplastics in the Orb study were about 2.5 microns. A filter with a pore size less than 2.5 microns will remove most microplastics from your tap water.

Don't hesitate to get in touch if you would like more suggestions, or if you want to test your water for microplastics to learn more. Our team of water chemists, engineers, and treatment experts are always standing by to help ensure that you have safe and healthy drinking water.

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