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Microplastics In Water:  What You Need To Know

Microplastics In Water: What You Need To Know

Updated on 3/15 to reflect discovery that microplastics were found in over 90% of bottled water

Caitlin M. Cameron, M.S.  |  Contributing Scientist 

When people think of plastic waste they likely think of items such as bottles, bags, and straws, but there are smaller objects that inconspicuously threaten habitats and wildlife.  Microplastic waste is a monumental problem world-wide, but has received little attention until recently. Microplastic waste endangers both organisms living on land and those in aquatic habitats, and may harm humans.  Additionally, microplastics in water interfere with industries like fishing, shipping, and tourism, which suffer at least $13 billion in damages every year from plastic pollution.  Microplastics are used in large quantities in many products and are harder to clean up than other plastic materials.  This article answers several questions pertaining to microplastics, some of which may surprise consumers.

What Are Microplastics?

The term “microplastics” is used to describe particles that are made of nondegradable plastic, smaller than five millimeters long, and cannot dissolve in water.  Several sources are responsible for creating microplastics: mechanical forces, sunlight, and weather wear down and fracture large plastic containers; plastic pellets used for manufacturing; and the small, manufactured plastic beads used in health and beauty products.  Known as “microbeads”, these tiny pollutants may be as small as one micrometer (1 μm), making them completely invisible to the naked eye.  An estimated eight trillion microbeads enter aquatic environments every day, which is equivalent to lining up microbeads side by side and covering more than 300 tennis courts daily!  A 2015 study estimated between 15 trillion and 51 trillion microplastic particles had accumulated in world oceans.   Microplastics are entering aquatic environments in copious amounts, and coupled with the small size of these particles, environmentalists are struggling to develop methods to successfully clean up these particles.

Where Do Microplastics Come From?

Microbeads, the manufactured plastic beads that are added as exfoliates, have been replacing natural ingredients in personal care products for the last fifty years.  Face wash, skin scrub, hand soap, makeup, shampoo and conditioner, hair dye, sunscreen, baby care products, cleaner, nail polish, deodorant, and toothpaste are just a few of the consumer goods that contain microplastics (including microbeads).  These particles can account for up to 90 percent of the ingredients in certain cosmetic products.  An even less talked about source of microplastics is nylon and polyester clothing.  Laundering nylon and polyester clothing causes tiny bits of plastic to wash down the drain and eventually empty into lakes, streams, and oceans.  One study found that as many as 700,000 tiny synthetic fibers (i.e., pieces of nylon or polyester) washed down the drain after one cycle in the washing machine, while a study conducted using four different types of synthetic fleece jackets revealed that every time a synthetic fleece jacket was washed, 1.7 grams of microfibers were washed down the drain.

Why Do We Care About Microplastics?

Microplastics in water have the potential to pose an environmental hazard from the moment they enter bodies of water.  Fish and other aquatic wildlife ingest microplastics, which may irritate or damage their digestive system.  If microplastics are not excreted and instead accumulate in the gut, the animal may mistakenly believe it is full of nutritious food instead of harmful plastic, resulting in malnutrition or starvation.  Microplastics may also affect the feeding behavior, predator avoidance capabilities, and cell function in some vertebrates and invertebrates as well as alter sediment composition.  Microplastics also serve as a vessel, carrying pollutants like pesticides and manufactured chemicals such as BPA, DDT, and PCB’s, which may be ingested or filtered by animals.  Crustaceans and other filter feeders may also experience a decrease in reproductive success due to the consumption of microplastics.  Filter-feeding organisms play an important role in creating a healthy food web, and microplastics may adversely affect the biology and physiology of these animals and any animal who consumes them.  

It’s not just wildlife that is threatened by plastics in our water bodies.  Evidence suggests that humans who eat seafood are also consuming the plastic particles that fish and shellfish already ingested.  In 2014, researchers purchased fish and shellfish from Indonesian and American markets that were selling seafood for human consumption to assess the number of plastic pieces in the animals’ guts.  In Indonesia and the United States, approximately one out of every four fish contained small plastic or fibrous debris while one out of every three shellfish sampled in the United States contained some sort of small debris in their guts.  While it seems apparent that aquatic wildlife are not the only organisms to consume plastic particles, the effects of microplastic consumption on human health are not yet clear.

What Is Unknown About Microplastics?

A lot.  Research on plastic pollution, which includes the study of microplastics, is still a relatively new field, so a great deal is still unknown with regards to microplastics and their effects on aquatic organisms, habitats, and human health.  Scientists are still identifying how best to quantify the number of microplastics (in all size ranges) that enter aquatic environments, which organisms consume and accumulate particles, and whether the affected animals harm the predators (including humans) that eat them.  In other words, the extent of damage that microplastics are causing to habitats and species at all levels of the food chain need to be studied in much more detail.

What Is Being Done To Learn More?

Researchers are working to answer many unknowns: the extent of microplastics in the ocean; how microplastics uptake in the food web; if pollutants transfer to animals from microplastic particles; and the potential impacts on the conservation and health of aquatic plants and animals.  A collaborative effort between researchers at the University of Washington Tacoma and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Debris Program has led to the establishment of a reliable method to use weight to quantify the amount of microplastics in sand, sediment, or a water sample.  Similarly, many nonprofit organizations were formed to investigate microplastic pollution and its effects on wildlife and human health.

What is Being Done To Fix The Problem?

In recent years, preventing microplastics from entering waterways has received international attention.  Important work is ongoing to develop ways to minimize the amount of microplastics going down drains and clean up plastic already polluting bodies of water.  Additionally, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and universities are working together to evidence and encourage lawmakers to pass legislation requiring companies to use fewer microplastic ingredients in their products.  Several states in the U.S. and countries around the world have banned the manufacture and sale of one-time use plastic products, which will reduce the number of plastic items in a landfill that will eventually become microplastic pieces.  Many nonprofit organizations work tirelessly to combat the world’s plastics problem.  The Ocean Cleanup Project recently developed a new method to remove 70,000 metric tons of plastic from the sea within ten years.  Other efforts include collaborations between nonprofits and clothing manufacturers to create clothing and footwear made entirely out of plastic debris.  On a global scale, the United Nations held an environmental assembly for the first time in 2014 involving more than 150 governments who are concerned about the effects of microplastic pollution in water bodies around the globe.  The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was tasked with studying aspects of microplastic debris in marine environments worldwide and developing methods for reducing the number of sources of microplastics.  UNEP also works to mitigate the global impacts that microplastics have on habitats, marine flora and fauna, and humans.  Closer to home, former President Barack Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which banned the use of microbeads in all personal care products manufactured after 2015.  This Act was a respectable first step in eliminating the use of microplastics while also increasing public awareness and prompting some corporate action.  However, it contains language that leaves room for the use of microbeads in items that are not considered “personal care” or “rinse-off products” like deodorants, nail polish, or cleansers.  It also contains loose definitions of the terms “plastic” and “biodegradable”, which allows companies to produce plastic products that biodegrade only slightly (not fully) over a short period of time.

In the short term, focusing on improving wastewater management facilities and their ability to prevent smaller plastic debris from reaching the water has been considered a decent first step.  Perhaps more important for long-term success would be a shift in the way we think about all plastic, regardless of size.  Treating plastic as a valuable, limited resource like water instead of an inexhaustible resource that can be discarded after one use would ultimately lead to a reduction in the amount of microplastics in water bodies.  If companies redesigned products to be more ecofriendly, contain less synthetic material, and use safer chemicals and consumers used these products more responsibly, we will reduce the potential for health threats posed by microplastics.

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    Bioaccumulation & Biomagnification Of Toxic Chemicals: What You Need To Know

    Editor's Note:  We've been writing more articles about organic chemicals like endocrine disruptors, methylated mercury, so we've been getting a lot of quesitons about how people become exposed to these chemicals.  Even though these questions deal more with food than drinking water, we though that it'd be worthwhile to spend some time on an article explaining how this happens.

    What is Bioaccumulation?

    Bioaccumulation refers to the process of toxic chemicals building up inside of an organism’s body. This happens when a chemical is consumed or absorbed, and the body cannot catabolize or excrete it quickly enough. Mercury is a well-known chemical that will bioaccumulate in humans.  We commonly hear about mercury exposure resulting from eating fish such as tuna (or other large predatory fish). However, mercury as well as many other harmful chemicals can also be found in drinking water supplies across the United States.

    Chemicals that tend to bioaccumulate are stored in cells and not exposed to direct physical or biochemical degradation. These chemicals can collect and hide-out, particularly within adipose tissue (fat cells). Fatty mammary tissue often contains the highest concentrations of toxic chemicals. These chemicals in our mammary tissue are then passed along to infants when nursing.

    What is Biomagnification?

    DDT accumulation in environment            

    Image from http://biology.tutorvista.com/environmental-pollution/effects-of-water-pollution.html

    Biomagnification refers to the process of toxic chemicals increasing in concentration as they move throughout a food chain. Bioaccumulation and biomagnification often work hand-in-hand; one animal accumulates chemicals in the body (bioaccumulation) and then a larger predator consumes that smaller animal such that the chemical is passed along to the predator. The chemical “magnifies” as the resulting concentrations increase in the predator because it likely consumes large quantities of that particular prey throughout its lifetime (biomagnification). As top-level predators in our own food chain, humans tend to collect high concentrations of toxic chemicals in our bodies. 

    What are Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxics (PBTs)?

    PBTs are a particular group of chemicals that threaten the health of humans and the environment. Examples include methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), and dioxins. PBTs are considered extremely dangerous to both humans and wildlife because they remain in the environment for a very long time without breaking down, then bioaccumulate and biomagnify in ecosystems (including ours).

    PBTs can also travel long distances and move between air, water, and land. DDT, a notorious environmental pollutant, was developed as a synthetic insecticide in the 1940s. Sprayed over crops, DDT would then wash into water supplies and contaminate lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, and oceans. Small organisms such as plankton and algae absorb DDT through the water. Smaller fish then consume the contaminated algae and plankton. Larger predatory fish then consume the smaller fish. Eventually, large predatory birds or humans eat the contaminated fish. Despite being banned in the United States over 40 years ago, DDT is still found in soil and water supplies today. In addition, humans contain the highest concentrations of DDT when compared to other organisms.

    How Does This Impact Human Health?

    Exposure to PBTs has been linked to a wide range of toxic effects in humans and wildlife. Some of those adverse effects include but are not limited to disruption of the nervous and endocrine systems, reproductive and developmental problems, immune system suppression, and cancer.

    How Can I Minimize Exposure To PBTs?

    1. Avoid eating species of fish that are long-lived and high on the food chain such as tuna, marlin, shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish.
    2. Use a high quality water filters that removes PBTs (e.g. DDT, Dioxins, BPA, Phthalates from contaminated drinking water before the chemicals get a chance to accumulate in you

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    How Mining Activities From Long Ago Continue To Pollute Water Today

    Daphne Abrams M.S.Ed.  |  Scientific Contributor   

    I became interested in the impact of mining a few years ago when I started teaching an environmental science class in northwestern Nevada.  Nevada has a rich history of pioneers and mining (It is the silver state after all).  While mining can be a source of revenue and prosperity for an area, it also has a huge environmental impact that can last many decades after the mining activity ends. This article discusses how this has played out in the Carson River.

    Historical Mining Activities And EPA Superfund Sites

    EPA’s Superfund program is responsible for cleaning up highly contaminated land and responding to environmental emergencies, oil spills and natural disasters in order to minimize long-lasting contamination from these events.  Even though the government has categorized these sites as highly toxic, they are sorely underfunded when it comes to cleanup and often forgotten about altogether.  This is particularly problematic because one in six Americans live within 3 miles of a Superfund site. The closest two Superfund sites to the school that I teach at are two abandoned mining sites. One is the Carson River Mercury Site, which is the legacy of silver and gold mining in the area, and the other is from the abandoned Rio Tinto Copper Mine. 

    Lasting Impacts Of Historical Mining Activity On The Carson River

    Between the contamination from these two Superfund sites, roughly eighty miles of the Carson River is paralyzed by heavy metal toxicity.  Even though contamination likely occurred in the 1800s, there are still advisories not eat fish caught in that stretch of the Carson River, due to concerns about mercury, which biomagnifies up food the food chain. 

    What's Being Done About Contamination From Historical Mining Activities?

    While it seems hard to debate against cleaning up these types of historical toxic messes,   the Senate and House voted to overturn the “Stream Protection Rule” shortly after President Trump took office, as part of the new administration's campaign promise to relax environmental regulations.  

    Do You Have More Questions About How Does Mining Affect Water Today?

    Hydroviv makes it our business to help you better understand your water. As always, feel free to take advantage of our “help no matter what” approach to technical support! Our water nerds will work to answer your questions, even if you have no intention of purchasing one of our water filters. Reach out by dropping us an email (hello@hydroviv.com) or through our live chat. You can also find us on Twitter or Facebook!

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    Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs):  Everything You Need To Know

    Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs): Everything You Need To Know

    Stephanie Angione, Ph.D.  |  Scientific Contributor   

    What Are Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)? 

    Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) are a class of industrial that were widely manufactured in the US from the 1930s through the 1970s for use in electric equipment such as capacitors and transformers, and also as heat transfer fluids, plasticizers, adhesives, fire retardants, inks, lubricants, cutting oils, pesticide extenders, and in carbonless copy paper.
     
    While PCB production slowed in the 1960s and was banned completely in the US in 1979, they are still found in industrial applications due to their chemical longevity. The US congressional ban was enacted due to the fact that PCBs are persistent organic pollutants, which create long lasting environmental toxicity and cause harmful health effects. Products that contain PCBs include old fluorescent lighting fixtures, PCB capacitors in old electrical appliances (pre-1978) and certain hydraulic fluids.
     
    Nearly 2 million tons of PCBs have been produced since 1929, 10% of which persists in the environment today. Generally, environmental concentrations of PCBs are low, but due to their chemical inertness they are largely resistant to chemical breakdown or thermal destruction, and thus accumulate in the environment. Additionally, PCBs are highly fat soluble, resulting in the build up of PCBs in animal fat, resulting in higher concentrations of PCBs in top food chain consumers (e.g. predatory fish, large mammals, humans).
     

    Where Are PCBs Found In The Environment?

    Polychlorinated Biphenyls accumulate primarily in water sources, organic portions of surface soil, and in living organisms.
     

    Water

    Surface water that is contaminated with PCB waste generally has high levels of PCBs in sediment, as the PCBs attach to organic matter. PCBs can be slowly released from the sediment into the water and evaporate into the air, especially at higher temperatures.

    Air

    PCBs have been detected throughout the atmosphere, and can be transported globally through air. Concentrations of PCBs in the air are generally the lowest in rural areas and highest in large cites. Areas that are close to bodies of water that were highly contaminated with PCBs from industrial waste (e.g. Lake Michigan, Hudson River) can have higher air concentrations, due to evaporation of PCBs into the air over time.  

    Living Organisms

    PCBs accumulate in living organisms via bioaccumulation, or uptake from the environment, as well as biomagnification, from consumption along the food chain. Bioaccumulation is typically highest in aquatic species, with bottom feeding species having the highest levels of PCBs due to accumulation in sediment.  PCBs biomagnify up the food chain, as bottom feeders like shellfish are eaten by other species, and thus the greatest levels are found in large predatory fish. This process can also occur on land, as PCB contamination in soil is transferred up the food chain to insects, birds and mammals. Thus, one of the largest sources of PCB exposure and accumulation in humans is from food, specifically meat and fish.   

    How Do PCBs Impact Humans?

    While PCBs have been classified as probable human carcinogens, there is no evidence that the low levels of PCBs in the environment cause cancer. Exposure to high levels of PCBs have primarily occurred through workplace exposure in people who work in plants that manufacture the chemicals. Studies of workers exposed to high PCB levels have shown association with certain types of cancer. These high levels of exposure have also been known to cause liver damage, skin lesions called chloracne, and respiratory problems.

    Exposure to PCBs during pregnancy can result in developmental and behavioral deficits in newborns. Additionally, there is evidence that reproductive function can be disrupted due to PCB exposure. Women of childbearing age, or those who are pregnant or nursing should be aware of fish and shellfish advisories to limit consumption of PCB contaminated fish.
    There are additional studies that suggest PCB exposure can cause health effects including thyroid dysfunction, liver dysfunction, as well as adverse cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, immune, musculoskeletal, and neurological effects.
     

    How Are PCBs Regulated & Monitored In The US?

    With so many sources of PCB exposure from food and water sources, the US government has guidelines on the amount of allowable environmental PCB contamination for each.  

    Food

    The FDA enforces a tolerance level in fish of 2 ppm, and overall 0.2 -3.0 ppm for all foods. PCBs in paper food packaging are limited to 10 ppm.
     
    If fishing recreationally and you plan to eat your catch, check if any local fish consumption guidelines exist for your area. The EPA maintains a national database of fish and shellfish advisories issued by each state. These consumption advisories may recommend limiting the amount of a certain fish consumed, or from specific waters or water sources. As of 2011, five areas have advisories for PCBs in freshwater sources (Missouri, Minnesota, Maryland, Indiana, and District of Columbia) and nine states (Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island) have PCB advisories for coastal waters.

    Drinking Water

    Under the Clean Water Act, industrial discharge of Polychlorinated Biphenyls in water is prohibited. The goal is to reach zero contamination in drinking water, but the enforceable maximum level is 0.0005 part per million (ppm).  Additionally, industries are required to report spills or accidental releases to the EPA. 

    Routine monitoring of PCB levels in drinking water require the water supplier to maintain the limit enforced by the EPA and must make the data regarding water quality and contaminants public. Every year, the EPA requires water suppliers nationwide to provide a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR), which will include information about water treatment and any known contaminants. These reports are available on the EPA website and should be available on your water company’s website. Additionally, the supplier is required to alert customers of increased levels of PCB contamination as soon as possible.
     
    If you get water from a household well, the local health department should have information about ground water quality and contaminants of concern, but it is often a good idea to have your water tested by a certified laboratory if you are worried about PCB (or other) contaminants. The EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791) can provide additional resources in your local area.

    How Can I Remove PCBs From My Water?

    If your water has high levels of PCBs in it,  the water should also not be used to drink, prepare or cook food,  or given to pets for consumption without first treating it.  Fortunately, PCBs are effectively removed from water by filters that use activated carbon as part of their active filtration media blend.
     
    Hydroviv makes it our business to help you better understand your water.  As always, feel free to take advantage of our “help no matter what” approach to technical support!  Our water nerds will work to answer your questions, even if you have no intention of purchasing one of our water filters.  Reach out by dropping us an email (hello@hydroviv.com) or through our live chat. You can also find us on Twitter or Facebook!

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