The packaged bottle of water you drink may be advertised as having come from pristine springs but it may be far worse than you imagined. New research has, for the first time, detected and categorised how nearly quarter million invisible pieces of tiny nanoplastics can be present in the average litre of bottled water.
It was no mystery that bottled water contains microscopic plastic pieces but we did not quite know how many were present and of what kind until researchers from Columbia University and Rutgers University did the calculations. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, the researchers documented how the particle level is between 1,10,000 and 4,00,000 plastic pieces per litre, with the average being around 240,000.
The study used a newly-developed laser technology that can find even the smallest of fragments. This increased the number of detectable plastic particles in bottled water by a factor of more than ten and in some cases, 100, according to Time.
A lot of this plastic seems to be coming from the bottle itself, with a large part of the rest coming from the reverse osmosis membrane filter that is used to keep out other contaminants, according to AP. The researchers did not reveal the three brands of bottled water they used in the study because they did not want to single out a few ones before they went and studied more brands. But they did mention that those were commonly available brands in the United States and can be found in a Walmart.
The plastics in the bottled water featured different sizes, shapes and distributions, which told the researchers where they came from, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), for example, appeared as chunky micrometer-sized shards. They could have come from the bottles themselves, which are often made out of PET.
The smaller nanoparticles were probably those that were shed into existence during the earliest stages of bottled water production. They could have further disintegrated into smaller parts through processing. The researchers also found polyamide and polystyrene plastics. Almost ironically, these are most commonly used as membrane materials used to filter water in treatment plans.
But the scientists still have not answered the million-dollar question — can these nanoplastics be harmful to health?
“That’s currently under review. We don’t know if it’s dangerous or how dangerous. “We do know that they are getting into the tissues (of mammals, including people) … and the current research is looking at what they’re doing in the cells,” said study co-author Phoebe Stapleton, a toxicologist at Rutgers, to AP.
But all four co-authors interviewed by the publication admitted that they will be cutting back on their bottled water use after what they found during the study.