Microplastics in bottled water: There is a problem but what’s the solution?

Microplastics in bottled water: There is a problem but what’s the solution?

By Gopi Kuppuraj

The World Health Organization (WHO) launches a review after microplastics have been found in over 90% of the world’s most popular bottled water brands.

Scientists at the State University of New York Fredonia (SUNY Fredonia) in collaboration with Orb Media, a Washington D.C. based non-profit journalism enterprise, have revealed that more than 250 water bottles from 11 brands at 19 locations in US, China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Lebanon, Kenya and Thailand are contaminated with microplastics such as polypropylene, nylon, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

The study found an average of 325 plastic pieces in the size of 0.10 millimeter for every liter of water sold — which could be twice as high as those found in tap water. As a result, WHO has announced a review into the potential risks of microplastic contamination in drinking water.

Testing the waters:

The scientists applied Nile Red dye to capture the visibility of the microplastics. Nile Red adsorbs to the surface of plastics and fluoresces under specific wavelengths of light. The results revealed confirmed microplastic identity and found polypropylene to be the most common (54%) polymer. This is the same substance used to manufacture bottle caps. According to the study, the following table shows the range of particles per liter of bottled water by brand.

 

BRAND LOWEST AND HIGHEST NUMBER OF PARTICLES PER LITER
LOWEST HIGHEST
Aqua 0 4,713
Aquafina 2 1,295
Bisleri 0 5,230
Dasani 2 335
Epura 0 2,267
Evian 0 256
Gerolsteiner 9 5,160
Minalba 0 863
Nestle Pure Life 6 10,390
San Pellegrino 0 74
Wahaha 1 731

The results of the study have not been published in a research journal and have not been through scientific peer-review. However, a second independent study by a campaign group also found microplastics in 19 bottled water brands in the US.

How do microplastics end up in drinking water?

While the answer is still unknown, air is an apparent source. One of the reasons speculated for plastics entering the bottles is they are low-density materials and easily airborne. They could come from the manufacturing or bottling environment in the factories — from fans, machines or the fleece jacket of the workers. Plastic fibers may also enter into water systems — a recent study finding that each cycle of a washing machine could release 700,000  microplastics into the environment.


Bottled water manufacturers stress that their products meet stringent regulatory and quality requirements in the countries they are operating. The safety requirements of most countries stipulate there must be no contaminants. However, there are no specific rules for microplastics in food and beverages, including the US. Coca-Cola, for example, has launched its own investigation to independently evaluate the findings of the SUNY Fredonia scientists in its Dasani bottled water.

Health concerns:

Plastics are known to contain, release or absorb toxic chemicals. These materials, upon entering our body, can interact with our physiological system in a variety of ways. They have been found in intestinal walls, gastrointestinal tract, gallbladder., pancreas, spleen and liver. According to 2016 report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, microplastics have also been shown to enter the bloodstream before they discharge in the kidneys and liver. However, there is very little research on the health risks of these substances.

WHO review:

WHO reports that although there is not yet any evidence on impacts of microplastics found in bottled beverages on human health, it is aware that current study is an emerging area of concern. WHO announced it would review the available evidence with the objective of identifying knowledge gaps and establishing a research agenda to inform a more thorough risk assessment.

How to remove microplastics from water?

One of the ways to prevent the contamination is to upgrade the current standard water treatment systems to filter out all of the microplastics. Second strict quality control measures must be applied to the bottle manufacturing facilities and this would involve WHO, regulatory and government bodies to ensure microplastic contamination is regulated in bottled drinks and beverages.

Some effective methods already used or proposed are:

  • Aquaporin, a Danish company has launched a project called Bonus Water in partnership with various research centers and universities to develop a membrane-based filter system with the aim of removing contaminants such as microplastics and xenobiotics in water.
  • Undersink Carbon Block Filtration Systems can remove plastic particles that are approximately 0.025 millimeters.
  • Reverse Osmosis: This technology separates the water from the contaminants and filters down to below .0001 millimeters so it obviously is a very viable method.

However, these methods cannot be applied for large-scale water treatment/bottle manufacturing factories. The water industry has no current experience or technologies to separate out microplastics at a large scale and the treatment of microplastics by the beverage industry is little explored. A high level of funding and technology innovations are required in this area. Beverage and bottle water manufacturers need to understand what feasible options there are to monitor and ultimately reduce microplastic contamination.

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