Extremely small pieces of plastic, too tiny to be removed by water filtration systems, are turning up in the vast majority of tap-water systems globally.
The US-based non-profit journalism outfit Orb sampled tap water from more than a dozen countries globally, and found 83% of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibers. These fibers are known to shed off of synthetic fabric in clothes dryers, though there are likely many other sources.
Tap water from the US—where machine-drying clothing is ubiquitous—was the most contaminated, with plastic fibers showing up in 94% of Orb’s samples. Lebanon also had a 94% contamination rate, and India was next-most contaminated, with 82% of samples containing plastic. Europe had plastic fibers in 72% of its samples.
When plastic degrades, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces—but it doesn’t disappear. These minuscule pieces of plastic, along with the synthetic fabric fibers, are turning up in more and more places as more researchers begin to look.
Previous studies found people can sometimes ingest microplastics when they eat seafood, and that the average European shellfish eater is ingesting around 6,400 pieces of microplastic per year. Fish seem to be attracted to microplastic, and ingesting the stuff has been associated with behavioral changes and liver toxicity in the animals.
But there is currently no consensus on what, if any, health effects could be associated with humans continuously ingesting microplastic. Little research has been done to assess the risk to humans (and a randomized controlled trial isn’t possible, since you can’t ethically feed humans plastic) but plastic generally is known to absorb and release chemicals that harm human health.
“Chemicals from plastics are a constant part of our daily diet,” Scott Belcher, a toxicology researcher at North Carolina State University and a spokesperson for The Endocrine Society, told Orb. Generally speaking, plastics are constantly “breaking down and leaching chemicals, including endocrine-disrupting plasticizers like BPA or phthalates, flame retardants, and even toxic heavy metals that are all absorbed into our diets and bodies,” he said.
The Guardian notes that researchers found plastic particles in all 24 German beer brands they tested in a 2014 study, and in Paris, other researchers found microplastic falling from the air in 2015.
In a world where more than 400 million metric tons of new plastic is made each year (and only a small fraction is recycled) the waste has to end up somewhere. Apparently, some of it ends up in us.