Saturday 21 October 2017

Our drinking water is widely contaminated with tiny bits of plastic

Stock picture
Stock picture

Paul Melia, Dan Morrison and Christopher Tyree

People are routinely ingesting plastic through drinking water from their kitchen taps both in Ireland and abroad, a global survey has found.

The extent of plastic contamination across the environment is laid bare following original reporting and scientific research by Orb Media, a global non-profit newsroom based in Washington DC, in partnership with the Irish Independent.

An analysis of some 159 drinking water samples found that microplastics, fibres from clothing, and plastic threads are present in drinking water drawn from public supplies, including from a house at Crumlin in Dublin.

Researchers at the State University of New York and University of Minnesota found that microscopic synthetic fibres were found in 83pc of drinking water samples taken from cities and towns across five continents, including tap water from the US Capitol Complex and the Trump Grill in New York.

In addition, researchers also analysed five separate samples supplied by the Irish Independent, all of which were found to be contaminated. These did not form part of the global survey.

The study is the first to show plastic contamination in tap water, and has prompted fears that human health may be at risk.

"We have enough data from looking at wildlife and the impacts that it's having on wildlife to be concerned," said Professor Sherri Mason, a microplastics researcher at the State University of New York - who designed and supervised the Orb Media study. "If it's impacting them, then how do we think that it's not going to somehow impact us?"

Read More: 'I was alarmed - we take our water for granted'

Research from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology published in June has highlighted that microplastics are present in Irish waters, and suggested they could pose a risk to humans and animals. The research found that among the main sources were plastics manufacturing, landfill, septic tanks and urban wastewater treatment plants.

The Government is planning to ban microbeads found in cosmetics and cleaning products, and the research found particles in drinking water from a variety of sources. Some 270 million tonnes of plastic are believed to be generated every year, of which 40pc including disposable forks is for single use.

The survey found that some 83pc of all samples globally were contaminated, with the highest rates in the USA and Beirut at 94pc. The lowest level of contamination was in European samples, at 72pc.

Senior inspector with the EPA Darragh Page said there were no standards for plastics contamination in drinking water supplies in Ireland, the EU or countries including Canada and the US. This is because there was little research completed in this area, assessing potential risk to humans, wildlife or the wider environment.

"All of our drinking water standards come from the EU Drinking Water Directive from 1998 but there are no standards for plastic. There are ongoing discussions about revising the directive, but the issue of including a standard for microplastics hasn't come up yet," he said.

Read More: Irish samples found to be well in excess of global norm

"The health risks, if there are any, haven't been determined or assessed. It's hard to set a standard if you don't know what the risk is but there may well be standards in the future."

Much of Irish drinking water supplies are drawn from surface waters including rivers and lakes, which are more at risk of containing microplastics. The EPA said there was a need for further research on possible health implications.

Experts suggest that if the synthetic fibres are found in drinking water, they're also likely to be present in foods prepared with water including bread, pasta, soup and baby formula.

Dan Morrison and Christopher Tyree are reporters with Orb Media. The full report can be found at www.OrbMedia.org

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News