Photos of seals struggling to survive with plastic rings around their necks, and turtles pierced by plastic drinking straws or drowning in discarded fishing nets are horrific and have spurred efforts to clean up the plastic pollution that exists worldwide. Many of us are making changes to reduce our use of plastic, but we have been too complacent and now plastic pollution impacts us directly.
The World Health Orgnization (WHO) is reporting that microplastics are now found in tap water and bottled water, and the data journalism group Orb and researchers at the University of Minnesota have found microplastics in 94 percent of US tap water.
Plastic is an almost indestructible material. To date we have made around 8.3 billion tons of plastic and about 60 percent of it remains somewhere on the planet. At most only 9 percent of discarded plastic ever reaches recycling centers, and another 12 percent of it is burned. The rest is buried in landfills or simply dumped and washes into rivers and oceans.
Indestructible does not mean that a plastic bottle remains a bottle forever. Plastics are broken down in many ways into smaller pieces and the smallest, that are less than 5 mm in length, are called microplastics. Included as microplastics are the microbeads, very small pieces of polyethylene plastic added to health and beauty products as exfoliants. The smallest microplastics can move through water filtration systems into rivers, lakes and reservoirs, and high levels of them are found in water near urban populated areas.
Dangers to Animals and Humans
It was once believed that plastic debris did not interact chemically with seawater, but now we know that the chemical additives in plastics can leach out. On their own, these chemicals cause harm but they can also become attached to or absorbed by microplastics. Sealife, land-based animals, and humans can then ingest microplastics and the chemicals they carry. While the environmental impacts are not fully known, there is growing concern about human exposure, especially to the very smallest particles that are measured in nanometers, which can pass directly through cell membranes to enter the body. The longer plastic waste stays in the environment the more it continues to break down into more nanoparticles that humans may consume and absorb into their bodies.
It may take a long time for scientists to fully understand the effect microplastics have on both the environment and public health, and it will certainly take more time and effort to get plastics out of the environment. That means we, as consumers, must find ways to mitigate the problem and take steps now to remove plastic contaminants from our drinking water. The first step is to ensure that our water treatment plants use equipment of the highest quality that contains only high-density plastics that cannot leach chemicals into the water, and to find out which technology they use.
There are at least three technologies that can remove microplastics from the water supply.
Carbon Block Filtration will capture most plastic particles.
Electro-Adhesion can filter out particles to sub-micron levels and also removes bacteria, cysts, viruses, arsenic, chromium 6, lead and other heavy metals.
Reverse Osmosis separates out the contaminants and filters down to the lowest levels.
An internet search will lead to a variety of products that will “clean up” our personal water supply at home, but focusing on drinking water must not blind us to the basic fact that our use of plastics and our “throwaway” culture have created a monstrous problem that affects the whole world. It is our responsibility, tikkun olam, to do the work necessary to repair it.
—Lesley Frost, Advocacy Chair