The Grapevine

Microplastics Found In Bottled Water Is Not Harmful, WHO Says

A recent World Health Organization (WHO) analysis of research on microplastics in bottled water said that microplastics exceeding 150 micrometers are not likely to be absorbed by the body. The data available does not conclusively state that microplastics are a bane to health. However, the ingestion of smaller microplastic particles is limited while the absorption rate could be slightly higher for nano sized particles.

The size is important to note because the review explained that over 150 micrometers sized microplastic particles are not as common as the smaller particles. Sometimes, the smallest particles are less than 1 micrometer in size in bottled water. The presence of plastic polymers in water is not considered harmful since it has low toxicity levels and is not easily absorbed into the intestine. On the contary, studies in the past have thrown up some worrying results about microplastics entering the gut, since it could release harmful chemicals, leading to oxidative stress. 

“Based on the limited information we have, microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels. But we need to find out more. We also need to stop the rise in plastic pollution worldwide,” Dr Maria Neira, Director of the Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health at WHO, said. In the press release issued on Thursday, the WHO called for further research to study the impact of microplastics on human health since the current research available is not reliable. 

The analysis by the organization was motivated by a study conducted by researchers based at the State University of New York in Fredonia. It was commissioned by Orb Media, The Guardian had previously reported. They studied 259 bottles from 19 locations across nine countries belonging to 11 brands.

Of them, only 17 bottles were free of plastics and 93 percent contained microplastics in the bottled water. On average, 325 plastic particles per liter of bottled water was found. In fact, the study found that in just one bottle of  Nestlé Pure Life, the concentration was 10,000 microplastic pieces per liter. 

Bottled water Research on micro-plastics in bottled water is not enough to indicate direct health risks, a new analysis by WHO reveals. Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

As eight million tonnes of plastic make their way into the ocean, the material breaks down into smaller particles. These microplastic particles eventually enter the food chain since they are small enough. Chemicals that make up the plastic are potentially carcinogenic. But the research about what happens to plastic post ingestion is absent.

A study by the World Wildlife Fund suggested that on average, the world’s population is consuming 100,000 microplastics every year. In other words, 21 grams a month or 250 grams a year of microplastics are consumed. So far, no studies conducted on humans speak about the health hazards related to microplastics in drinking water. 

There are a few toxicology studies conducted on rats that indicate that microplastic ingestion could lead to the liver’s inflammation. The WHO found these studies unreliable and not comparable to the exposure level of microplastics in drinking water. 

What Needs to Be Addressed 

Wastewater effluents are recognized as one of the primary sources of microplastic in freshwater, therefore WHO recommends removing pathogens and chemicals that lead to deadly diseases. The organization pulled up drinking-water suppliers to make the necessary changes to their wastewater and drinking-water treatment systems. 

Available treatment facilities by huge corporations are equipped to remove plastic. Tertiary wastewater treatment, which involves filtration, is capable of removing more than 90 percent of microplastics found in wastewater. On the other hand, regular drinking-water treatment can even successfully take out particles smaller than a micrometer.

The WHO also emphasized that the larger problem of fecal matter in water should be addressed by communities, while simultaneously dealing with the smaller problem of plastic material. Since a huge section of the world’s population does not have access to drinking water and sewage treatment, hence the issue of microplastics is not seen as important. But it most certainly cannot be dismissed as a non-issue.