Microplastics are incredibly tiny bits and pieces of plastic that have worked their way into our water systems, the food chain and even our bodies. In the oceans, microplastic pollution is becoming an increasingly concerning issue believed to have a harmful effect on marine biology. Now, the World Health Organization (WHO) has rung the alarm bells on microplastics working their ways into the water we drink – both from our taps and from sealed bottles. In a 124-page report published on Thursday (August 22), the WHO assessed the potential risks and dangers associated with widespread microplastic pollution.
The report underlined a drastic need for better screening methods and a better understanding of the health impacts of ingesting microplastics through water.
Dr Andrew Mayes from the School of Chemistry at the University of East Anglia, who devised a method of detecting plastic in bottled water, welcomed the findings of the report.
Speaking to Express.co.uk, the microplastics expert explained why even bottled water is not safe from pollution.
Dr Mayes said: “Microplastics are everywhere. They’re in the air we breathe, they’re in the water we drink, they’re everywhere.”
Microplastics: Tiny particles of plastic are found in bottled water, the WHO found
Microplastics: Household products are a big source of plastic pollution
There is no single, definite source of microplastic pollution and the term describes a wide variety of plastic types.
Microplastics are everywhere. They’re in the air we breathe, they’re in the water we drink
Microplastics start at pieces as little as 0.2 inches (5mm) and go low as microscopic measurements of just a few microns in size.
At these sizes, the microplastics are virtually a quarter of the diameter of a human hair, making them incredibly hard to detect.
The WHO report found varying amounts of these particles in water, ranging from zero to 1,000 particles per litre of freshwater and drinking water.
According to Dr Mayes, microplastics work their way into water systems from the many household products we use.
Washing machines will release microfibres into sewage, wet wipes that are made of plastic will break down into smaller fibres and non-recycled plastic waster will degrade over time into smaller and smaller pieces.
All of this combined, together with industrial pollution, has contributed to small amounts of plastic contaminating the bottled water we buy.
Thankfully, Dr Mayes said the WHO’s findings suggest the current levels of microplastics do not pose a threat to health just yet.
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Microplastics: A sample of plastic particles detected by Dr Mayes
Microplastics: Plastic products can degrade over time into smaller and smaller particles
Dr Mayes said: “The WHO report, which I think is a very reasonable synthesis of the information available currently, states that the risk is very low and I think that’s right.
“How much water do you drink? You drink three or four bottles a day maybe.
“Most of this microplastic will pass straight through your gut, one or two might possibly interact and do something in your gut, but relative to all the other food you’re ingesting it’s probably not making a very big difference.
“There is some uncertainty about that, and again, that’s addressed in the report.”
At the moment, ingesting microplastics was not found to be a “major concern”.
Given enough time, however, the levels of microplastic pollution are expected to get worse.
According to the WHO report, microplastic levels will double by 2025 and triple by the year 2050.
When that happens, there will be an increased need to study the health impacts on the human body.
Microplastics: The pollution can work its way into the food chain
Microplastics: Current levels of microplastics are not yet hazardous to life
r Mayes said: “Absolutely it’s going to get worse as time goes on.
“Possibly not the levels in bottled water because we can do something about that.
“For one, we can stop drinking bottled water, although the levels in tap water are generally similar, so it won’t buy you a big advantage.
“But it will buy you a big advantage in terms of the global environment.”