The Flotsam in Our Veins

Tainted tap water in the Plastic Age


We’ve all seen pictures of the garbage patch cluttering the ocean’s gyres. We’ve been warned that microplastics are filling the bellies of fish that we consume. But what about our drinking water?  Could the water from the world’s taps be creating flotsam in our veins?

Microplastics—those tiny fibers and fragments that float off your fleece and flake from your fence—are abundant in the world’s drinking water, a new study finds, and they’re accumulating in our bodies.

In a year-long project, researchers from Orb, a data journalism outlet, recently evaluated samples from drinking water taken from diverse locations around the globe. They found that 83% of tap water samples collected from over a dozen countries on five different continents tested positive for microplastics.

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The levels of plastic prevalence differed from place to place, as shown in the infographic, but over 70% of the tap water samples they collected revealed the presence of plastics. In the US, the study found that 94% of all water samples—including tap water from the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters—were contaminated by plastic.

Scientists indicate that plastic fibers are in our foods as well. “Chemicals from plastics are a constant part of our daily diet,” Scott Belcher, Ph.D., a research professor at North Carolina State University, told the study’s authors; “…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.”

Microscopic plastics can enter the water system in a myriad of ways, the researchers explain, from synthetic clothing fibers to tire dust, airborne particles, microbeads, and broken-down pieces of bags, straws, and bottles. An estimated one million tons of synthetic fibers make their way to water sources just through washing synthetic clothing each year. It’s insidious stuff that never breaks down, and it can be challenging to filter out.

Sherri A. Mason, PhD., Chair of the Department of Geology and Environmental Sciences at The State University of New York at Fredonia, told Orb, “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.”

What solutions can you recommend? What policies and protections do you feel should be put in place? WE_bug_web

  • Clint White.

    Let’s start selling plastic water bottles at our National Parks again! What a great idea!

    The only way is to ban the use of plastic in society. We can live without the nonsense, we just have to remove the lazy that has been bred into our beings. We live without plastic with three children, save for the products that come as ‘necessity,’ such as child car seats and vehicle interior. Buy bulk and bring your container. No bags at all, ever. What do YOU do?

    • Laura S.

      Clint, I really admire your commitment to living a plastic-free lifestyle. I do my best to limit my use of plastic, but it’s challenging! You’re absolutely right. It’s up to each of us to elevate our own consciousness with regard to plastics. Thanks for your inspiring comments.

  • N.C.Vasuki.

    There was always a risk in drinking water. Over the past century, drinking water quality has significantly improved in the rich countries. Also our testing capability has also significantly increased. So what are the real risks in using plastic piping over copper or steel pipes? If we go for a zero risk scenario, it just does not exist. We should be pragmatic and not blow this finding of microplastics up as a grave threat.

  • Dean De Carlo.

    Interesting to me because it all reduces to the fact that mankind, by and large, cannot effectively self-regulate. If that were not true we would have initiated waste regulation well prior to the Industrial Revolution ; we respond reactively by nature and have to condition ourselves for the proactive; urgency to improve and make change only comes with the threat of loss, depletion of resource, or absolute failure of a system, for example. Plastics were a scientific revolution upon discovery, a boon for humans to use in improving the quality of life. Now, it carries the very real potential to become toxic to human life. I have used plastics as shamelessly as the next person but am at a point in my life where I wish I had not, that I could go back and do things differently, and that I had not the dependency on plastics that I do today. I don’t care to split hairs regarding the human condition but it’s perplexing and not just a little sad in that it seems as if everything humans touch carries so much potential for negative, unintended consequences. I agree that there is no zero risk scenario but I cannot help but think deep down that maybe we are a little too little, a bit too late? I know giving up is not an option. But, viable and workable options right now are unclear to me.


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