Scientific findings rarely make the headlines, but driving to work listening to Radio 2 (yeah, I know, I’m old) it was announced that the World Health Organisation is launching a major investigation after a small US study found microplastics in nearly all bottled water it tested.

The study was carried out at the State University of New York and the results of their findings can be found on their website.  259 bottles were tested from 19 locations in 9 countries and the results showed that 93% of the bottled water contained contaminating microplastic.

So what – Plastic is safe, right?

Well that’s the thing, we don’t really know.  Have you every bought a plastic bottle or lunch box that says ‘BPA free’?  Well that is because there are increasing concerns about Bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical used in the producation of plastic.

BPA is known (yes, known) to leach into food and although the food standards agency dispell the notion that this is a health risk, it should not be dismissed entirely.  Studies show that BPA is a endocrine disruptor (say, what?) –  meaning it can affect your hormones, and some believe cause tumours and growth defects.  BPA’s are not the only concern, more recently pthalates,  have been found to act in the same manner and these chemicals are still found in nearly all plastic – I’m probably typing this on a pthalate enriched keyboard as we speak.

It is not just bottled water that is an issue, in the Telegraph this week it was reported that a study by University of Manchester revealed the River Tame near Denton to be one of the most microplastic polluted river in the world (yes, the world) and has called on the Environment agency to start monitoring microplastics.  You might expect some contamination is urban rivers, but 2017 Greenpeace studied remote Scottish feeding grounds of basking sharks  and also found microplastic is prevelent.

How does microplastic get into water?

If you have missed the images of floating plastic Islands the size of Mexico, please go and book a trip to the optician.  These are huge shifting masses of plastic that float around the oceans, threatening our wildlife – although horrific, there is a slight glimmer of hope where these are concerned – you can see them.  If the world got it’s collective finger out we could potentially scoop up these islands and dispose of them in a less environmentally catastropic way.  The massive issue is what is then left over.

Microplastics are defined as anything under 5mm – less than a grain of rice.  They were most significantly brought to public attention in 2015 when a study published in Environmental Science & Technology Journal highlighted that 8 trillion microbeads, in the US alone, were washed away – DAILY – as exfoliants in shower scrubs and toothpaste.    President Obama that year signed a bill prohibiting the cosmetic industry adding microbeads to any cosmetics.

Banning microbeads was obviously a huge step in preventing unecessary contamintation,  but it is still happening in many other very secretive ways.

Do you own a fleece?

It’s a weird question, I know.

The majority of synthetic fibres, like fleece are made from recycled drinks bottles and it is often hailed as recycling marvel – “Wow! look – 20 bottles in one jacket!”  And that is great – bottles otherwise destined for landfill are given a new, long-life purpose as a snuggly blanket or new dog bed.  However, it was discovered and published in 2011 that microfibres have been slowly making their way to shorelines around the globe.  With the main culprit being the washing of synthetics – depending on the quality, a fleece jacket can shed between 2000 and 250,000 microfibres every wash.

If you own a tumble dryer you might have a better understanding of shedding.  The humble tumble is fitted with a filter to catch fibres, this is actually a safety feature to prevent fibres catching fire, but it also demonstrates the issue nicely.  Calls have been made to have washing machines fitted with similar filtration, but that is probably a long way off – there is plenty that can be done in the meantime such as, washing synthetics less, switching to natural fibres or washing synthetics in a guppy bag to catch the fibres.

How does this affect us?

Microplastics that make their way into waterways and marine environments are a concern because they are easily ingested by small organisms.  Small organisms are eaten by larger animals, and so on, each time increasing the levels of toxins – until they potentially reach us – and this, for some, has been enough reason to stop eating seafood; believing that because they do not eat fish that they are no longer at risk – however as today’s findings show, it is something we simply cannot escape – anywhere.

Although you may have seen images of plastic pieces found in the stomachs of marine life, humans are not likely to mistakenly eat anything this visible. A bigger concern for human health is the presence of microplastic that is less than 100 microns in size.  From this size down these microplastics can work on a cellular level- like bacteria, they can pass through the gut wall and enter our blood stream – it is a concern because no one knows what that means.

Media Power

One final thought on the matter. I mentioned in a previous plog that it is not governments that are making the biggest waves in the ‘war on plastic’.  It is the combined efforts of the media and consumers, stamping their feet and demanding action.  Interestingly it was not the World Health Organisation that instigated the initial research study – it was a Media Company  – Orb Media commissioned the study. What is most shocking to hear is that when Orb contacted the leading bottled water compaines to ask if they were were aware of the plastic in their products, the answer was – Yes.

It all makes you start to question what else we don’t know.

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