Americans drink a lot of bottled water. According to an industry study, the average American drank more than 25 gallons a year in 2005. In 2017, it was up to nearly 37 gallons.
Now a new report from the State University of New York at Fredonia and journalists at Orb Media found that more than 90 percent of bottled water showed signs of contamination from microplastics.
For the report, which is not a peer-reviewed academic study and has not been published in a journal, researchers tested 259 different bottles purchased from 19 locations across 9 different countries. They included brands like Aquafina, Dasani, Evian, Nestle Pure Life and others.
The researchers found evidence of microplastic contamination in 93 percent of the bottles tested. Most were small fragments of plastic, followed by tiny plastic fibers.
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The researchers say something about the bottling process or the packaging is at least partially responsible for the contamination based on the type of plastic that was found.
“I think it is coming through the process of bottling the water,” researcher Sherri Mason told AFP. “I think that most of the plastic that we are seeing is coming from the bottle itself, it is coming from the cap, it is coming from the industrial process of bottling the water.”
The finding triggered a review from the World Health Organization to understand the scope of the problem - and any harm it may be doing to the body, reported The Guardian.
“This is shocking,” Erik Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, told Orb. “Please name one human being on the entire planet who wants plastic in his or her bottle.”
International Bottled Water Association President and CEO Joe Doass said in a statement that the report’s findings “do nothing more than unnecessarily scare consumers,” and added that “The bottled water industry is committed to providing consumers with the safest and highest quality products,” reported USA Today.
Microplastics are well known water contaminants, and the teeny tiny particles come from cosmetics to clothing to consumer products made of plastic that naturally break down. They aren’t a new problem, but most of the current research has looked at how they’re affecting ocean life. Microplastics (alongside other plastics) are often washed away from cities and into the ocean, where they end up in the stomachs of sea creatures, according to NOAA.
Recent studies have found microplastics even in some of the most remote parts of the ocean. Few studies, however, have looked at how much of that plastic was winding up in the filtered water people drink.
The health affects of drinking the plastic are unknown. Most probably passes right through the body with no ill effect, Martin Wagner, a toxicologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, told Orb.
But Jane Muncke, managing director of the Food Packaging Forum, told the site the plastics could be getting lodged in the body tissue.
“We don't even know all the chemicals in plastics,” Muncke told Orb. “There's so many unknowns here.”
The BBC reached out to the companies whose brands were included in the study. The site said many responded by defending their brand, questioning the study’s methodology and affirming that there were no regulations on microplastics in bottled water.