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The plastic you drink everyday

“We knew that this plastic is coming back to us through our food chain. Now we see it is coming back to us through our drinking water. Do we have a way out?”
A young boy climbs over plastic debris in a 50- year-old dump overlooking the ocean in this seaside town in Dagupan, Philipines - Photo: Chris Tyree/OrbMedia 2017
Dan Morrison and Christopher Tyree
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From the polar sea ice to remote Mongolia, scientists in recent years have visited distant parts of the world to measure, and marvel at, the extent of plastic pollution in the environment.

Plastic fibers, fragments, and granules have been found in nearly every place researchers have looked — in the oceans, in sea ice, in remote lakes and rivers, and in the atmosphere. But until now one research frontier – drinking water — remained unexamined. Tap water in cities around the world is contaminated with microscopic plastic fibers, according to exclusive research by Orb Media. Out of 159 drinking water samples collected on five continents, 83 percent contained plastic. 
Plastic is pouring out of faucets from New York to New Delhi. Scientists say they don’t know how these fibers reach household taps, or what their health risks might be.

But experts suspect plastic fibers may transfer toxic chemicals when consumed by humans. In animal studies, “it became clear very early on that the plastic would release those chemicals and that actually, the conditions in the gut would facilitate really a quite rapid release,” said Richard Thompson, a researcher at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom.

Plastic fibers join a long list of pollutants threatening the world’s water. But governments don’t know what they mean for human wellness. “This should knock us into our senses,” Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said. “We knew that this plastic is coming back to us through our food chain. Now we see it is coming back to us through our drinking water. Do we have a way out?” 

The contamination defies geography: The number of fibers found in a sample of tap water from the Trump Grill, at Trump Tower in Manhattan, was equal to that found in samples from Beirut. Orb also found plastic in bottled water, and in homes that use reverse-osmosis filters. U.S. regulators haven’t established a safety standard for plastic particles in drinking water. “You can’t make a determination that this is a real problem until you understand how this impacts the human organism,” said Albert Appleton, a former New York City water commissioner.

“We have enough data from looking at wildlife and the impacts that it's having on wildlife” to be concerned, said Sherri Ann Mason, a micro-plastics expert at the State University of New York. “If it's impacting them, then how do we think that it's not going to somehow impact us?” Mason supervised Orb’s tap water study.

The world produces 300 million tons of plastic each year. More than 40 percent is used once, sometimes for less than a minute, and discarded.
But plastic persists in the environment for centuries.

Surveys have found plastic fibers in fish from southeast Asia, to eastern Africa, to the California coast. Microplastics are as dense in parts of the Great Lakes, on the U.S.-Canada border, as in the oceans. “It is everywhere,” Mason said. The notion of plastic-contaminated fish and drinking water inspires dread and denial in waterside communities. “We have never found anything like that,” said James Nsereko, a Ugandan fisherman on the Lake Victoria shore. But a sample from Nsereko’s local tap contained four plastic fibers. It could have been worse. Water from the U.S. Capitol complex yielded 16 fibers; so did one from the Environmental Protection Agency

There’s one confirmed source of plastic fiber pollution, and you’re probably wearing it. Synthetic garments emit up to 700,0001 fibers per washload. In the U.S., wastewater plants catch more than half; the rest pour into public waterways. That’s 64,000 pounds a day. Some experts suggest these fibers are taken up by water systems in downstream communities, and piped into homes.

Another source might be the air. A 2015 study estimated between three and 10 tons4 of synthetic fibers fall onto the surface of Paris each year. “What we observed in Paris tends to demonstrate that a huge amount of fibers are present in the atmospheric fallout,” researcher Johnny Gasperi said. This might explain why fibers are found in remote water sources around the world. But Orb also found fibers in groundwater samples. Are microscopic plastic fibers really small enough to contaminate wells and aquifers? We’re left with a riot of unknowns.

If synthetic fibers are in tap water, they’re also in food. Do fibers accumulate in the human gut? Are they harmful? (Researchers believe plastic particles consumed with shellfish do accumulate in the body. How great is the danger if, for example, plastic fibers absorb endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which alter your hormonal system, before reaching the tap water? “We've never really considered that risk before,” said Tamara Galloway, an ecotoxicologist at Exeter University.

So what’s to be done?

Cities are only beginning to reckon with plastic fiber pollution. Slowing the wastewater treatment process would allow for the capture of more plastic fibers, Kartik Chandran, an environmental engineer at Columbia University, said. It could also increase costs. 

The challenge is to create safer substances as convenient as today’s plastics. Budding solutions include bioplastics, polymers made from sources like corn starch and tapioca root, and AirCarbon, a biodegradable plastic made from captured greenhouse gases. Elsewhere, companies are using proteins made from spider silk to spin fabric that may prove more durable than synthetics. 

Meanwhile, household filters and washing machine inserts are gaining popularity as a way to reduce fiber pollution. “Since the problem of plastic was created exclusively by human beings through our indifference, it can be solved by human beings by paying attention to it,” Yunus said. “Now what we need is a determination to get it done before it gets us.” 

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