Microplastics in water pose 'minimal health risk'

James Marshall
August 25, 2019

The majority of plastic particles in water are larger than 150 micrometers in diameter and are excreted from the body, while "smaller particles are more likely to cross the gut wall and reach other tissues", it said.

Microplastics - tiny plastic particles - hit headlines previous year when a study from Orb Media claimed that 93% of bottled water contained microplastic contamination.

"Tiny plastic particles known as microplastics are everywhere - including in our drinking-water but they are not necessarily a risk to human health", said United Nations experts said on July 22. The review included studies that used different cut-offs for reporting microplastic sizes, and different methods, sampling and analysis tools. In a newly published report, WHO scientists say the limitations of current data mean it is hard to gauge the potential impact on human health if concentrations of microplastics in drinking water continue to rise.

Based on the limited knowledge we now have, microplastic pollution in drinking water does not now pose a health risk, but more research and findings are required, the expert said.

At the same time, however, the World Health Organisation (WHO) also today found that there is a worrying amount we do not know about the growing scourge of broken down plastics, or microplastics.

"But I wouldn't want people to go away with the idea that microplastics are no longer important", because they might be harming the environment, he said.

Alice Horton, a microplastics researcher at Britain's National Oceanography Centre, said in a statement on the WHO's findings: "There are no data available to show that microplastics pose a hazard to human health, however this does not necessarily mean that they are harmless".

"We know that these types of materials cause stress to small organisms", he said. Not enough is known about the tiniest nanoplastics (those less than 1 micrometre) to be sure of their impact.

"Therefore", the World Health Organization report concludes, "it is not possible to draw any firm conclusions on toxicity related to microplastic exposure through drinking-water, particularly for the smallest particles, but no reliable information suggests it is a concern".

Biofilms are microplastics that have been colonised by microorganisms, possibly leading to infection.

"We also need to stop the rise in plastic pollution worldwide", said Dr. Maria Neira, director of WHO's Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health.

Other scientists, however, thought the report was a little too dismissive. A World Health Organization report released Wednesday, Aug. 21, said the minuscule plastics are ubiquitous in the environment and have been found in both tap and bottled drinking water.

Until we get a reliable body of data, the health effects of microplastics are anyone's guess. Despite growing public concern over microplastics in the food chain, the report found existing treatments are very effective at removing them from drinking water.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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