Microplastics are in our water, but no proof they’re harmful – WHO

The World Health Organisation (WHO), has said that its research into the effects of microplastics on human health has shown it does not seem to pose any health risk to humans, but more research was needed.

Microplastics are the tiny particles or plastic bottle fragments about five millimetres long most often found in bottled water.

“Based on the limited information we have, microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels. But we need to find out more,” said Dr Maria Neira, WHO’s Director, Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health.

A study released in 2018 by Orb Media, a non-profit journalism organization working with scientists from the State University of New York in Fredonia claimed that 93% of sampled global bottled water tested show ‘some sign of micro-plastic contamination’. The study examined 259 bottles from nine countries and 11 brands produced by transnational companies including Aquafina (PepsiCo), Dasani (Coca-Cola), Evian (Danone), Nestle Pure Life and San Pellegrino (Nestle).

The study prompted the WHO to announced it will review the potential risk of plastics in drinking water, saying that although there was not yet any evidence on impacts on human health, it was aware it was an emerging area of concern.

According to WHO’s findings, microplastics larger than 150 micrometres (a micrometre is a millionth of a metre) are unlikely to be absorbed in the human body, while the uptake of smaller particles is likely to be limited.

The WHO, in its findings said that the absorption of microplastic particles “including in the nano-size range may, however, be higher”; however, it cautioned that available data in this “emerging area” is extremely limited.

The UN body’s report said that microplastics have been found in marine settings, waste and fresh water, food, the air and drinking-water, both bottled and from a tap, but bottled water “in general did contain higher particle numbers”.

The report further said that the two polymers that were most frequently detected in drinking water were polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polypropylene.

“Now these polymers – the polyethylene terephthalate – are often used in producing bottled water bottles, and polypropylene, is often used in producing caps. However, there were other polymers detected as well, so more studies are needed to really make a firm conclusion about where the sources are coming from.”

While citing the handful of available studies into the absorption of microplastics and nanoplastics in rats and mice, which showed symptoms including inflammation of the liver, WHO’s report insists that people are unlikely to be exposed to such high levels of pollutants.

The WHO said that a much more clearly understood potential threat than microplastics is exposure to drinking-water contaminated by human or animal waste.

It suggested that governments can tackle this problem by putting in place better waste-water filtration systems, which would reduce microplastic pollution by around 90%.

“Consumers shouldn’t be too worried,” said Bruce Gordon, from WHO’s Department of Public Health.

“There’s many dimensions to this story that are beyond health. What I mean by that is, if you are a concerned citizen worried about plastic pollution and you have access to a well-managed piped supply – a water supply – why not drink from that?

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