“Chemicals from plastics are a constant part of our daily diet. We generally assume the water bottle holding that pure spring water, the microwave-safe plastic bowl we prepare our meals in, or the styrofoam cup holding a hot drink is there protecting our food and drinks. Rather than acting as a completely inert barrier, these plastics are 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” – Scott Belcher, Ph.D. Research Professor, North Carolina State University
Plastic is everywhere. Phone in your pocket, sole on your shoes, food in the refrigerator, clothes you wear, furnishing in your home, contacts in your eyes, inside your car, and now, in tap water too. It’s a plastic invasion. We have definitely entered into a plastic age. If it’s so much around us, it goes inside us too as we inhale, eat and drink. Now that’s a matter of serious concern.
A report published in The Guardian in September 2017 states that microplastic contamination has been found in tap water in countries around the world. Tap water samples from more than a dozen nations were analyzed by scientists for an investigation by Orb Media and 83% of the samples were found contaminated with plastic fibers. Bottled water may not provide a microplastic-free alternative to tap water, as it was also found in a few samples of commercial bottled water tested in the United States for Orb. The rates of contamination in tap water are as high as 94% in USA, 72% In Europe, 76% in Indonesia, Jakarta, 82% In New Delhi, India, 94% in Lebanon, Beirut and 81% In Uganda.
“This should knock us into our senses. We knew that this plastic is coming back to us through our food chain. Now we see it is coming back to us through our drinking water. Do we have a way out?” – Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder of Grameen Bank
ORB found 16 fibers in the tap water at the visitor’s center in the U.S. Capitol, home to both houses of congress.
Sherri A. Mason, PhD., Chair, Department of Geology and Environmental Sciences (The State University of New York at Fredonia) says “There are certain commons that connect us all to each other, air, water, soil, and what we have universally found time and time again is if you contaminate any of those commons, it gets in everything”.
Why should you care? Microplastics have been shown to absorb toxic chemicals linked to cancer and other illnesses, and then release them when consumed by fish and mammals. If fibers are in your water, experts say they’re surely in your food as well – baby formula, pasta, soups and sauces whether from the kitchen or the grocery. It gets worse. Plastic is all but indestructible, meaning plastic waste doesn’t biodegrade; rather it only breaks down into smaller pieces of itself, even down to particles in nanometer scale. Studies show that particles of that size can migrate through the intestinal wall and travel to the lymph nodes and other bodily organs.
This research led Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health at King’s College London, to tell a UK parliamentary inquiry in 2016: “If we breathe them in they could potentially deliver chemicals to the lower parts of our lungs and maybe even across into our circulation.” Having seen the Orb data, Kelly told the Guardian that research is urgently needed to determine whether ingesting plastic particles is a health risk.
Know your Plastics:
- PET: polyethylene terephthalate.
PET is commonly used in commercially sold water bottles, soft drink bottles, sports drink bottles, and condiment bottles (like ketchup). While it is generally considered a “safe” plastic, and does not contain BPA, in the presence of heat it can leach antimony, a toxic metalloid, into food and beverages, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea and stomach ulcers. Some studies have shown up to 100 times the amount of antimony in bottled water than in clean groundwater. The longer the bottle is on the shelf or exposed to heat or sunshine, the more antimony is likely to have leached into the product.
- HDPE: high-density polyethylene.
HDPE is commonly used in milk and juice bottles, detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, grocery bags, and cereal box liners. Like PET, it is also considered “safe,” but has been shown to leach estrogenic chemicals dangerous to fetuses and juveniles.
- PVC: polyvinyl chloride.
PVC can be flexible or rigid, and is used for plumbing pipes, clear food packaging, shrink wrap, plastic children’s toys, tablecloths, vinyl flooring, children’s play mats, and blister packs (such as for medicines). PVC contains a phthalate called DEHP, which can cause male traits to become more feminized (DEHP-containing products have been banned in many countries, but not the U.S.). In some products, DEHP has been replaced with another chemical called DiNP, which has similarly been shown to have hormone disruption properties.
- LDPE: low-density polyethylene.
LDPE is used for dry cleaning bags, bread bags, newspaper bags, produce bags, and garbage bags, as well as “paper” milk cartons and hot/cold beverage cups. LDPE does not contain BPA, but as with most plastics, it can leach estrogenic chemicals.
- PP: polypropylene.
PP is used to make yogurt containers, deli food containers and winter clothing insulation. PP actually has a high heat tolerance and as such, does not seem to leach many of the chemicals other plastics do.
- PS: polystyrene.
PS, also popularly known as Styrofoam, is used for cups, plates, take-out containers, supermarket meat trays, and packing peanuts. Polystyrene can leach styrene, a suspected carcinogen, especially in the presence of heat (which makes hot coffee in a Styrofoam container an unwise choice).
- Everything else.
Any plastic item not made from the above six plastics is lumped together as a #7 plastic. Any plastic designated #7 is likely to leach BPA and/or BPS, both potent endocrine disruptors linked to interfering with proper mood, growth, development, sexual function, reproductive function, and puberty, among other essential human developmental processes. They are also suspected of increasing the risk of adult reproductive cancers, obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
How did it happen? Almost 300m tons of plastic is produced each year and, with just 20% recycled or incinerated, much of it ends up littering the air, land and sea. A report found 8.3bn tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s, with the researchers warning that plastic waste has become ubiquitous in the environment.
What is the solution now? Below are suggestions from ORB-
To keep plastic out of the air, water, and soil is to radically rethink its design, uses, sale, and disposal. Here are some ways people around the world are working to change this grim global reality:
- Waste-to-Energy turns plastic and organic waste into gas and liquid fuel using a variety of technologies. The global waste-to-energy market is forecast to grow into a USD$33 billion industry by 2023.
- In the “Circular Economy”model, manufacturers and designers ensure that packaging and materials can be easily recycled and repurposed. Today, more than half of all plastic packaging can’t be recycled.
- New Materials: Leading brands and new startups are working to design synthetic fabrics that won’t shed fibers into the air and water. Bolt Threads, in California, is using proteins from spider silk to create a strong, stretchy fabric they hope will replace synthetic fleece. A Japanese company, Spiber, also plans to serve the outdoor apparel industry through spider silk. Meanwhile, startup NewLight Technologies has created a plastic called Air Carbon from greenhouse gases produced by cattle and landfills instead of from oil.
It is for sure that major shake ups are required to make our planet cleaner. There is no Planet B. We need to start taking steps, in every home, from today.
Photo Credit: Vince Cinches / Greenpeace Philippines