The ramifications of this study by Orb Media on the amount of plastic we’re ingesting are staggering. If they’re in drinking water, they’re in all our prepared food, from soup and beer we buy at the store to virtually every restaurant meal we eat. Researchers estimate we’re consuming roughly 3000 pieces of microplastics annually from water alone. Another study found that sea salt, derived from our heavily plastic-polluted oceans, also contains tiny plastic particles.
Though Orb Media researchers measured particles as small as 2.5 microns, they believe our water contains smaller particles as well. They speculate some are tiny enough to cross the walls of our digestive tracts and reach other organs and tissues. Plastic pollution isn’t some far-off problem — it’s inside us.
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In addition to the chemicals in the plastic itself, which are known to affect hormone function, these tiny particles attach themselves to pathogens from sewage and environmental pollutants like pesticides and heavy metals. Once in our guts, researchers believe, these chemicals can be absorbed into our bloodstreams, where they make their way to all parts of our bodies.
What all this plastic means for human health has yet to be quantified, but researchers do know that plastic chemicals are endocrine disruptors, affecting everything from fertility to cancer risk. A 2016 paper published in the The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology estimated that endocrine disruptors had collectively cost the United States and European Union nearly 12 million IQ points and over $500 billion to treat disease in 2010 alone.
How Did Plastic Get in Our Drinking Water?
Though we’re so accustomed to it most of us don’t notice it, plastic is now ubiquitous in our environment, much of it designed for disposability like takeout containers and shopping bags. Few of those one-use plastics are recycled, and many get washed into streams, rivers, and lakes, where they eventually join tons of other microplastics added to our waste stream each day. Despite being designed for disposability, those billions of plastic bags, straws, and myriad pieces of plastic packaging are incredibly durable. Though they break down into increasingly smaller pieces, they do not biodegrade and remain in the environment, entering the tissues of animals, including humans, when they eat and drink.
Our fleece and acrylic clothing turns out to be a key culprit in the pervasiveness of microplastics, contributing over one million tons annually to wastewater. One study found that a single load of wash could contribute over 700,000 fibers. In addition to the fibers that enter our wastewater, when clothes and other textiles shed fibers through daily wear and tear or a trip through the clothes dryer, some of the dust enters the atmosphere. A 2015 study in Paris found plastic particles suspended in both indoor and outdoor air. Once in the atmosphere, these bits of plastic can enter bodies of water, even those distant from other sources of plastic pollution.
Car and truck tires are another notable source of plastic pollution. As tires are abraded by roadways, they create dust that gets washed into streams and rivers. A car driving an average of 12,000 miles per year will shed about eight pounds of dust. Multiply that by the more than one billion cars worldwide, and we’re talking about an immense amount of tire dust.
Latex and acrylic paints contribute another ten percent of the world’s microplastics. When we wash paint brushes in the sink, we send billions of tiny particles of plastic into our waterways.
Popular for their scrubbing action in personal care products like toothpaste and facial scrubs, tiny plastic beads known as microbeads have been washed down drains by the trillions. The U.S. and U.K. banned microbeads beginning in 2017 and other countries are considering following suit. Microbeads are still permitted in personal care products not designed to be rinsed off as well as in industrial applications, so they haven’t yet gone away completely.
Getting Plastic Out of Our Drinking Water
Researchers were surprised to find such pervasive plastic particles in the water of developed countries, where water treatment plants typically use filters considerably smaller than the ones used in the study. One of the conclusions study authors drew from this research is that narrow plastic fibers can slip through filters lengthwise, and those caught by filters may dislodge over time.
A quality home water filter can take out plastic particles of two microns or more, (Lifestraw Steel Personal Water Filter can filter down to 0.2 microns, but its portable size makes it better suited to emergency and wilderness situations). However, like water treatment facilities, some home filters may release some of the fibers caught, researchers report.
Further, though the study was limited by the power of their microscopes, researchers are pretty confident still smaller plastic particles are suspended in our water that can’t be removed by a filter. “I don’t see us filtering ourselves out of this problem,” says Sherri Mason, chair of the Department of Geology and Environmental Sciences at the State University of New York at Fredonia, who supervised the research. “We tend to want to solve problems by dealing with the problem instead of thinking about the sources. The source of the problem ultimately is us.”
While a home water filter is still a good idea to remove other pervasive chemicals and some plastic fibers, (in some cases more than your municipal water filter, as noted in Berkey’s response to the study) we need to do more to solve the larger problem. Mason hopes this research serves as a call to action to rethink what she calls “this love affair we have with synthetic chemicals and plastics.” She urges everyone to limit their use of plastic and call on corporations to find alternative materials and create textiles that shed fewer fibers in the wash. She hopes people will alert elected officials and vote with their dollars to slow the flow of plastics into our environment, currently 300 million tons each year.
How You Can Help Cut Plastic Pollution
We all have roles to play in this fight to curb plastic pollution. Decisions we make each day about the food and goods we buy, the clothes we wear, and our driving habits will all affect how much plastic winds up in our air and water. Our choices can also help shape the decisions made by the manufacturers of all that stuff, as reducing demand for plastic should help decrease its production.
In the laundry room
Synthetic clothing made of polyester, nylon, or acrylic will shed tiny plastic particles each time you wash them. To limit the plastic your laundry contributes to the environment:
- Buy natural fibers such as cotton, hemp, or wool.
- Wash synthetics less often.
- Wash full loads. Fuller loads of washing will produce less friction and thereby pull off fewer fibers. Liquid laundry soap also causes less friction than powdered, so using liquid laundry detergent can also help, though of course more liquid detergent comes in plastic bottles. (See Eco-Nuts Soap Nuts for an alternative). Cold water is reported to release fewer fibers than hot, and will also save energy and cut the emissions of your laundry.
- Consider getting a filter for your washer’s wastewater.
Whenever possible, say no to plastic bags, plastic wraps, and plastic packaging. Bring your own shopping and produce bags, use reusable wrap and bottles, and choose alternative packaging or no packaging whenever possible. These moves will also cut your family’s exposure to the chemicals of concern commonly used in plastic packaging.
Avoid plastic straws, which have become the latest target in the campaign against plastic pollution. Bringing your own beverage container not only eliminates the waste of the cup and lid, but also helps make a dent in the billion straws we toss in the trash every single day. In restaurants, just say no to the straw and sip directly from your cup. Though each straw seems small, the collective impact on plastic pollution has been enormous, and teaching others to do the same can help reverse the trend of our increasing use of disposable plastic.
Drive less and rideshare. The fewer trips tires make on roads, the less plastic dust enters our waterways. Walk or take public transport when possible, and carpool when you can.
Ask companies to move away from plastics. Though some of the work of de-plasticizing the planet will happen through individuals using less and thereby reducing demand, pressuring corporations to produce less of the stuff in the first place is critical. Some corporations have already heeded the call and found alternative materials to plastic.
Support moves toward a circular economy. Plastic is one of the most visible and insidious products of our take-make-waste model of business. Rather than assuming all consumer products will wind up as trash, some forward-thinking companies aim to recapture and reuse all the components of a product when its useful life ends. The Cradle-to-Cradle certification can help you find products designed for endless reuse.
Support organizations trying to stop plastic pollution at its source or clean up existing pollution. Numerous local, national, and international organizations are working to address the problem of plastic pollution with cleanup projects, pressure on government and industry, and technological innovation. If there’s a beach in your area, you can pitch in on cleanup days to keep the plastic litter on beaches from breaking down into smaller (and harder to clean) particles that enter the marine and freshwater food chains.
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