Tiny plastic fibers or “microfibers” have been found in the far corners of the world — in the oceans, in remote lakes and rivers, in fish, salt, and honey, and in the air we breathe. But until now one research area — our drinking water — remained unexamined.
According to new research published this week by Orb Media, tap water and plastic bottled water in cities on five continents is contaminated with microscopic plastic fibers. 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 animals and humans.
Photo by Steve Johnson
“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,” reads the Orb report. Orb also found microfibers in bottled water, and in homes that use reverse-osmosis filters. Eighty-three percent of samples worldwide tested positive for microscopic plastic fibers.
“This is frightening information. It’s time for all of us to wake up,” Plastic Pollution Coalition co-founder and CEO Dianna Cohen said of the new research. “Microfibers are insidious. If we’re finding them in everything around us, the obvious solution is to go to the source, to refocus our energy, and to move away from toxic plastics.”
What does the new report mean for our drinking water? Jane Patton, managing director of PPC, which is a project of Earth Island Institute, advised contacting officials to make your voice heard. “We believe access to clean water is a human right. Make sure your city government knows that you expect them to keep your drinking water safe. Stand up and say ‘I rely on this resource.’ Remember that we have a structure in place to influence the cleanliness of our tap water and that is not the case with the plastic bottled water industry.”
The news about plastic microfibers in our drinking water comes on the heels of study by Plastic Soup Foundation(PSF) published in May 2017, reporting the presence of microfibers in plankton, farmed and in wild mussels, sea salt, and even honey.
According to PSF, microfibers can enter our water supply through machine washing synthetic clothing such as fleece, polyester, and nylon. “It appears that 34.8 percent of primary microplastics released by machine washing synthetic clothes ultimately ends up in the environment,” explained Maria Westerbos, director of Plastic Soup Foundation.
Clothing fibers are often too small to be filtered out at wastewater treatment plants and are discharged into streams, rivers, lakes, and eventually the ocean. “Plastic particles smaller than 5 mm pose a massive environmental and human health risk when they enter our waterways,” said Abby Barrows, a marine research scientist with Adventure Scientists and College of the Atlantic, who has analyzed thousands of water samples from around the world for microplastics.
Microfibers in our waterways are consumed by fish and other marine animals. They are one component of a growing list of plastic pollution causing more than 1,220 animal species to suffer, said Westerbos. “It can have myriad consequences: ranging from a worsened condition and internal wounds to starvation and dehydration.”
Photo by Richard Kirby/Courtesy of Orb Media
What does this mean for human health? “I would not be surprised if we start to find microplastics on or in food that we consume daily,” said Barrows of the scope of the problem. According to PSF, consuming fish and shellfish that contain tiny particles of plastic could lead to health risks. The European Food Safety Authority already considers microplastics as threat to our food safety.
Thankfully, all over the world, grassroots advocates are working to stop microfiber pollution. The UK-based Life+ Mermaids research consortium, recently studied microfiber loss in washing machines, and conducted successful experiments with bio-based coatings made from shrimp (chitosan) and plants (pectin). These experiments managed to reduce fiber loss by an impressive 50 percent, but how this can translate to households around the world is still unknown.
In the US, the Cora Ball — a microfiber catching laundry ball — is now being produced after a successful crowdfunding campaign. The natural filtration system of coral formed inspired the design of this ball, which filters tiny particles out of the rinse water in the washing machine. Another innovation is the Guppy Friend, a special bag for the washing machine that traps microfibers and prevents them from reaching the water supply.
Slowing the wastewater treatment process would allow for the capture of more plastic fibers, Kartik Chandran, an environmental engineer at Columbia University, told Orb Media. Such a move, coupled with the fashion industry moving away from synthetic fabrics, could stop, or at least decrease, the flow of plastic microfibers into the environment.
“It is worrying … that so far we have hardly seen any effort from the clothing industry to tackle the problem at the source,” said Westerbos. “Although all the grassroots solutions we have been seeing are fantastic, it is even more important that we see change in the clothes themselves. Instead, the only development we can see is that more and more brands are creating clothing from possibly dangerous ocean plastics, which might disintegrate even quicker.”
“Downcycling used plastics into clothing is not the solution,” Cohen added. “This simply continues the cycle, eventually releasing plastic fibers into the environment, animals, our food sources and ultimately, into us. The fact that we’re finding microfibers in bottled water and tap water is a wake up call. On an individual level, if you have the ability to filter your drinking water, please do. On a larger scale, demand that your local water municipality improve their filtration systems to address microfibers immediately. Fashion industry, hear us: If you are making clothing out of synthetics (plastics) you are part of the problem.”
Solving the global plastic pollution problem will take collaboration between individuals, companies, and governments working to stop the flow of new plastic being created. A global shift away from a Linear Economy (take, make, dispose) toward the Circular Economy (make, use, return) will ensure that manufacturers and designers create clothes, packaging, and materials that do less damage to the earth. While incineration or “waste-to-energy” is sometimes hailed as a plastic pollution solution, this method poses considerable risk to the health and environment. (Read more on the problems with incineration.)
Together, we can take action to stop plastic pollution around the world. “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,” Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said, speaking with Orb Media. “Now what we need is a determination to get it done before it gets us.”
TAKE ACTION: Tell your representatives to protect our water from plastic microfibers. If you live outside the US, write your elected official directly.
Learn more: 15 Ways to Stop Microfiber Pollution Now