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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Endocrine Disruptors In Drinking Water: What You Need To Know
***Updated 8/27/2018 to include video***
What Are Endocrine Disruptors?
Endocrine disruptors are chemical compounds that mimic hormones. They can either block the action of a naturally occurring hormone or intensify the effects of a natural hormone by eliciting the same physiological response as the hormone itself. Endocrine disruptors can be pharmaceuticals, dioxin and dioxin-like compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls, pesticides, and plasticizers such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates.
Why Do We Care About Endocrine Disruptors in Water?
Once entering the body, endocrine disruptors can accumulate and intensify or block the effects of the body’s natural hormones. As a result, the effects of endocrine disruptors most profoundly impact the reproductive systems of animals by reducing fertility, and increasing risk of developmental malformations in offspring. Endocrine disruptors are also known to increase risk of cancer, and cause disturbances in immune and nervous system function.
It is not yet clear what concentrations of various endocrine disruptors are safe for humans. Research is ongoing and consumers need to be aware of the potential risks associated with exposure to these potentially harmful chemicals in tap water.
What Are Examples Of Endocrine Disruptors Commonly Found In Household Goods?
BPA (the chemical shown on the left hand side of the header image) is produced in large quantities in the process of creating polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. Polycarbonate plastics have many applications including use in some food and drink packaging, for example, water and infant bottles, impact-resistant safety equipment, and medical devices. Epoxy resins are used as lacquers to coat metal products such as food cans, bottle tops, and water supply pipes.
Phthalates (an example is shown on the right hand side of the header image) are a group of chemicals used both as solvents and as plasticizers (which make plastics more flexible). They are found in a wide variety of products, such as vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, plastic clothes (raincoats), and personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, and nail polishes). Pthalates are also used in polyvinyl chloride plastics, which are used to make products such as plastic packaging film and sheets, garden hoses, inflatable toys, blood-storage containers, medical tubing, and some children's toys.
Can Tap Water Become Contaminated With Endocrine Disruptors?
Absolutely. Common medications like horomonal birth control are (by design) endocrine disrupting chemicals, and can enter the water supply when excreted as urine or when pills are flushed down the toilet. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) tested water in nine states across the country and found that 85 man-made chemicals, including some medications, were commonly slipping through municipal treatment systems and ending up as harmful chemicals in our tap water. Another report by the Associated Press found trace amounts of over a dozen pharmaceuticals including endocrine disruptors in water supplies of some 46 million Americans.
How Are Endocrine Disruptors Regulated?
The EPA and FDA recognize that endocrine disruptors cause adverse health effects to both humans and wildlife. In 1996, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). This means that drinking water can be monitored or screened for endocrine disrupting chemicals. However, there is still no regulatory limit on these endocrine disruptors in water.
How To Minimize Exposure To Endocrine Disruptors
The US National Institute of Health (NIH) makes the following recommendations to avoid ingesting endocrine disruptors from food packaging:
- Don’t microwave polycarbonate plastic food containers. Polycarbonate is strong and durable, but over time it may break down from over use at high temperatures.
- Plastic containers have recycle codes on the bottom. Some, but not all, plastics that are marked with recycle codes 3 or 7 may be made with BPA.
- Reduce your use of canned foods.
- When possible, opt for glass, porcelain or stainless steel containers, particularly for hot food or liquids.
- Use baby bottles that are BPA free, or opt for glass or stainless steel.
In addition to the steps laid out by NIH, high quality home water filtration systems are an effective way to remove endocrine disrupting chemicals, should they be found in your tap water.
As always, we encourage readers to take advantage of our "Help No Matter What" approach to technical support, where one of our experts will answer your questions, even if you have no desire to purchase one of our water filters. Drop us a line at email@example.com or through our live chat window.
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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?
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?
- 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.
- 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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Digging Into The Environmental Working Group Tap Water Database
Eric Roy, Ph.D. | Scientific Founder
This past week, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a website where people punch in their zip code, and view contaminants found in their water. As a company that uses water quality data to optimize each customer’s water filter, we applaud EWG for putting in the enormous amount of time & effort to build the database so the public can learn about their water. Unfortunately, we are seeing that these data are being used to generate inflammatory headlines, which can leave consumers confused and unnecessarily panicked.
We will be updating this water quality database blog post as more questions come in. If you have your own question, please reach out to us (firstname.lastname@example.org). One of our water nerds will do their best to get back to you very quickly, even if it’s outside of our business hours.
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated July 31, 2017
Are All Potential Contaminants Listed In The EWG Tap Water Database?
No. The EWG Tap Water Database pulls data from municipal measurements, but municipalities are only required to test for certain things. Simply put, you can’t detect what you don’t look for. One example of this can be seen by punching in Zip Code 28402 (Wilmington, North Carolina) into the EWG Tap Water Database. GenX, a chemical that has been discharged into the Cape Fear River by Chemours since PFOA since 2010, is not listed, even though it’s been in the center of a huge topic of conversation for the past 2 months in the local media.
Why Is The “Health Guideline” Different Than The “Legal Limit?”
The two different thresholds use different criteria. For example, the “Health Guideline” cited by EWG for carcinogens is defined by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) as a one-in-a-million lifetime risk of cancer, while the “Legal Limit” refers to the MCL which is the limit that triggers a violation by EPA. The OEHHA's criteria are established by toxicological techniques, while the EPA limits are negotiated through political channels. We wrote an article that addresses this topic in much more detail for those who are interested.
Why Am I Just Learning About This Now?
The EPA's Safe Drinking Water Act requires municipalities to make water quality test data public in Consumer Confidence Reports. These reports are required to talk about the water's source, information about any regulated contaminants found in the water, health effects of any regulated contaminant found above the regulated limit, and a few other things. As discussed before, the data in the EWG report use different criteria than the EPA, and it's hard for people to make sense of what's what.
Are The Data Correct If My Water Comes From A Private Well?
No. The EWG Tap Water Database only has data for municipal tap water. Private wells are completely unregulated, and there's no requirement to conduct testing. If you'd like us to dig into our additional water quality databases to help you understand likely contaminants in your private well, we're happy to do so. We don't offer testing services, but we're happy to help you find an accredited lab in your area, give advice on which tests to run, and help you interpret the results! We offer this service for free.
What About My City's Water Quality?
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 (email@example.com) or through our live chat. You can also find us on Twitter or Facebook!
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