Earth & Conservation

Microplastics Have Contaminated the World's Tap Water, and Much Else Besides

Invisible plastic fibers were found in the tap water of more than a dozen nations throughout the world, with the US having the highest level of contamination.

Plastic is all around us. It's in our electronics, tools, cars, and food packaging, as well as in much of the clothing we wear. It even gets inside of us from the water we drink every day. 

Microplastic fibers were recently found in the tap water of more than a dozen nations throughout the world — 83 percent of the tap water samples contained these fibers, Orb Media reported. The US had the highest levels of contamination at 94.4 percent, which amounted to 4.8 plastic fibers in each 500ml sample.

How is plastic getting in our water? It’s a good question with no good answer.

“We know that there’s plastic in the air, and I suspect that’s probably where a lot of this is coming from,” Dr. Sherri Martin, chair of the department of geology and environmental science at SUNY Fredonia, who supervised this study, told Seeker. “Water is constantly in contact with air through pipes, for example, so I suspect that a lot of this is airborne contamination.”

Europe had the lowest amount of plastic in its tap water, but there were still fibers found in 72 percent of all samples tested from countries that include the UK, France, and Germany. Beirut in Lebanon had one of the highest levels of plastic in its tap water, at 93.8 percent, even though the city’s water comes from natural springs.

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Within the US, plastic contamination did not discriminate according to wealth or status. Plastic fibers were discovered in tap water from congressional buildings in Washington, DC, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, and even Trump Tower in New York.

The prevalence of plastic contamination in US tap water is something that surprised Mason.

“In developing nations they don’t have the water treatment and waste infrastructure that we do, so they constantly have floating debris in their water,” Mason said. “I thought there would be more plastic in water from developing nations than in [places] like the United States and the UK, and that’s not at all what we saw.”

“I don’t think we can filter ourselves out of this problem.”

The question of how plastic consumption affects the human body is difficult, if not impossible, to answer, according to Mason.

“From the moment we’re conceived we’re already starting to be exposed to synthetic chemicals because our mothers are exposed [to them],” she said. “When we’re born we already have, on average, nearly 300 synthetic chemicals in our bodies. There is no control group.”

Chris Tyree, a journalist with Orb Media who conducted this research along with Mason and Mary Kosuth of the University of Minnesota, was surprised by how little we know concerning the health hazards of plastics.

“I find that rather chilling,” Tyree told Seeker. “Plastics have been around for a century. We know that the chemicals that make up some of these plastics cause serious health issues, but microplastic research is really in its infancy.”

Looking at animals may help to provide some answers. Mason pointed out that it is possible to raise fish and frogs in pristine conditions, with no exposure to synthetic chemicals, so they serve as a good example of how the chemicals from plastics might affect humans.

“Most people go, ‘Well, we’re not fish, we’re not frogs,’ but the reality is that… their circulatory systems and their endocrine systems are very much the same as humans,” Mason said. “If you see it happen in a frog, you’re going to see it happen in a human, just over a longer period of time.”

In research conducted at Plymouth University in the UK, Prof. Richard Thompson found that not only did plastic release chemicals in the body of wild animals when they consumed it, but the conditions in the animal’s gut sped up that release.

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We’re not just ingesting plastic in our water either. A 2014 German study found plastic in beer, honey, and sugar. Mason’s study, among others, has shown that it is prevalent in sea salt — which is not all that surprising given the amount of plastic pollution in our oceans. Compared to tap water, sea salt has much more plastic on a per unit basis.

If you were to eat the amount of salt recommended by nutritional guidelines by consuming only sea salt, Mason said, “You would be consuming several thousand particles of plastic per year.”

Drinking bottled water doesn’t offer a much better alternative to the tap. Mason and her team tested several leading US bottled water brands and found plastic present in all of them. It’s not just a question of good filtration; most of these microplastics are about 10 microns in diameter or smaller, which is 1 millionth of a meter, or about .00004 inches.

“You hear there’s plastic in your drinking water and the first thing you want to do is get the plastic out,” Mason said. “Unfortunately I don’t think we can filter ourselves out of this problem.”

Going forward, there’s no easy solution. Recycling is one piece of the puzzle, but many plastics can’t be recycled. For example, most straws are made from polystyrene, which is not recyclable.

“Even if you put it in a recycling bin it will end up in a landfill,” Mason noted.

She believes there’s a legislative component as well.

“The government could step in and say, ‘This is stupid guys, we shouldn’t be doing this,’ like they did with microbeads,” she said. Microbeads “were completely useless, so it was easy for the government to say, ‘Let’s just ban these.’”

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After reporting this story, Tyree believes it is impossible for us to ever give up the convenience of plastic.

“In some cultures and socioeconomic spheres, it is the only affordable way of life,” he commented. “But the shear amount we are consuming is mind boggling. We’ve practically created more plastic in the last decade than in the last century. If plastic were a country, it would have the world’s 20th largest economy.”

Some progress is being made in the way of biodegradable plastic, which would decompose much more quickly over time than current plastic materials. A team of researchers at the University of Nebraska recently discovered a faster and more efficient way to manufacture bioplastic, which could potentially compete with petroleum-based plastic, from a durability and production standpoint.

But the ultimate solution is likely closer to home. Mason believes that it starts with the consumer.

“Of course I don’t want [people] to stop drinking water,” she said. “But I want them to be alarmed by the study in that they change their behavior.”

Tyree agrees that the responsibility rests largely on us.

“It starts with the individual. Many will say that we can start by skipping the straw or take reusable bags to the market, but it’s really more than that,” he said. “To make any significant dent in this means really rethinking how we manufacture and use plastic.”

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