The Health Risk of Plastic in Drinking Water is Low

James Marshall
August 25, 2019

The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined as "low" the risk to the health of microplastics in drinking water.

Its analysis found microplastics - defined as small pieces, less than 5mm in length, of any kind of plastic debris - in the water cycle, including both tap and bottled drinking water, food, air, rivers and lakes.

However, concerns over microplastics in drinking-water should not yet result in diversion of resources from removing microbial pathogens, which remain the most significant risk to human health from drinking-water along with other chemical priorities, recommend researchers. With scant data available on both hazard and exposure, the authors were only able to review nine studies on microplastics in drinking water, and many of these were deemed unreliable in some way.

Counterintuitively, the report said larger microplastics (those bigger than 150 micrometres - about the diameter of a hair) are of least concern because they pass straight through the human body. The report warns of other dangers ahead: if plastic emissions in the environment continue at the current rate, microplastics could present widespread risks for aquatic ecosystems in a century, which could in turn increase human exposure.

Now, for the first time, WHO has examined the potential human health impacts of exposure to microplastics through drinking-water.

Just because plastic is present in our water, that doesn't necessarily mean it is harmful to human health.

Proper waste water treatment, involving the removal of faecal content and chemicals, should, the World Health Organization says, also remove more than 90% of microplastics.

Tiny particles of plastic get into our drinking water in a number of ways but mainly through surface runoff after rain or snow, waste water and industrial effluent. There are now few reliable studies that have used different methods and tools to sample and analyse microplastic particles. There is limited data, but the data so far has been reassuring.

"We know that microplastics are in our environment and that they can have a long term impacts on organisms".

Consumers are not at risk, say WHO.

'But we need to find out more.

Almost all of plastic particles in water are bigger than 150 micrometers in diameter and are excreted from the physique, whereas "smaller particles usually tend to cross the intestine wall and attain different tissues", it stated.

People need to prevent rising plastic pollution around the world, she added. He said stronger measures to reduce plastic are needed.

Wastewater treatment could strip out more than 90 per cent of microplastics from wastewater, with the highest removal coming from tertiary treatment such as filtration, while conventional drinking-water treatment could remove particles smaller than a micrometre. In 2016, 485,000 diarrhoeal-related deaths worldwide were attributed to microbially-contaminated drinking-water and some two billion people drink faecally-contaminated water every day, it said.

'Hopefully, highlighting this issue in such a prominent way in the report will encourage the research community and funding agencies to address this gap in an urgent and concerted way'.

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