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Microplastics in Bottled Water - A THREAT

Author: Kayla Otoo

Editors: Chiara Chen and Kevy Chen

Artist: Susan Wu

Is the water we drink safe? The process of getting drinkable water starts with taking water from a freshwater source such as a river, stream, or lake. The water then undergoes treatment, which consists of filtration and disinfection, which can include distillation, reverse osmosis, or deionization. Despite this lengthy process, studies have proven microplastics exist in bottled water. Thus, can we conclude that bottled water is safe to drink?

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long that are very difficult to see with the naked eye. When larger plastics decay, they produce microplastics that can break down further into nano plastics, which measure less than 1 μm.

On January 8, 2024, a research team led by Dr. Wei Min and Dr. Beizhan Yan of Columbia University analyzed microplastics within three different water bottle brands. They created a high-imaging platform that revealed that a liter of bottled water contained 240,000 pieces of tiny plastics. Furthermore, there were seven different types of plastics in the water. Several of these plastics were expected, including polyamide, a kind of nylon used to filter/purify water, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a polymer made of ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid used to make bottles. There were also traces of polyvinyl chloride, polymethyl methacrylate, and polystyrene, all of which are used in water purification. Additionally, there were some unrecognized plastics present in the water as well. Through this study, Dr. Yan and his team developed a new tool that can recognize these plastics, with Dr. Yan stating, “This opens a window where we can look into a plastic world that was not exposed to us before.” 

It is vital that we reach deeper into this world of plastics because of their effects on people. The damage that is caused by microplastic particles can differ depending on their physicochemical properties, size, surface area, and shape. However, all plastics pose similar risks by their nature as plastics. They can contain monomers and additives, hydrophobic chemical coatings, and biofilm formation due to the growth of microorganisms in drinking water distribution systems. Monomers, additives, hydrophobic chemical coatings, and biofilm formation can be found in drinking water distributions due to the growth of microorganisms. Microbial pathogens in drinking have posed a major public health risk. In 2016, there were 485,000 diarrhoeal-related deaths due to microbially-contaminated water.

Even more threatening than microplastics are nanoplastics, which are even smaller, increasing their potential harm. Nanoplastics can pass straight through the intestines and lungs to the bloodstream, allowing them to travel directly to organs like the heart or brain. Once these microplastics are in those organs, they can invade cells, leading to many dangerous health complications. 

However, there are many ways we can solve this immense threat. Existing treatments, such as wastewater and drinking water treatment, can effectively remove 90% of microplastics and some nanoplastics from wastewater. Not only should we use our systems to our advantage, but we should minimize the plastics we release into the environment. Each year, our plastics problem increases, with 400 million tons of plastic currently produced annually and 30 million tons of plastic waste deposited annually.  Just as Dr. Wei Min and Dr. Beizhan Yan and his team created a device that detected microplastics, we need to continue to use innovation to our advantage to save our drinking water. 

 

Citations:

“Bottled Water Can Contain Hundreds of Thousands of Nanoplastics.” Columbia University

Mailman School of Public Health, 9 Jan. 2024,

“Plastic Particles in Bottled Water.” National Institutes of Health (NIH), 22 Jan. 2024,

Swistock, Bryan. “Understanding Bottled Water.” Psu.edu, 2016,

extension.psu.edu/understanding-bottled-

WHO. Microplastics in Drinking-Water. 2019.

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