Often marketed as pure and natural, bottled water rose to popularity several decades ago for various factors, including its perceived superiority to provide clean water. However, are you confident that it is one of the purest forms of drinking water?
“Our love affair with making single-use disposable plastics out of a material that lasts for literally centuries — that’s a disconnect, and I think we need to rethink our relationship with that,” said Prof. Sherri Mason, a microplastics researcher who carried out the laboratory work at the State University of New York (SUNY), according to CBC News.
Mason’s team tested 259 bottles from 11 brands in nine countries including Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Thailand and the US.
Partnered with CBC News, a U.S. based non-profit journalism organisation known as Orb Media commissioned the scientists at the State University Of New York in Fredonia to analyse the bottled water.
They found that “almost all (bottles) were contaminated to some degree”.
The study revealed that 93% of all bottles tested contained some microplastic, including polypropylene, polystyrene, nylon and polyethene terephthalate (PST).
The samples showed signs of an average of 10.4 microplastic particles about the width of a human hair per litre. This contamination level was twice the level discovered in previous research conducted by the group on plastic in tap water across the globe. Moreover, the number of particles varied from bottle to bottle; while some contained one, others contained thousands.
The study targeted around 11 of world’s dominant players – Aqua (Danone), Aquafina (PepsiCo), Bisleri (Bisleri International), Dasani (Coca-Cola), Epura (PepsiCo), Evian (Danone), Gerolsteiner(Gerolsteiner Brunnen), Minalba (Grupo edson Queiroz), Nestle Pure Life (Nestle), San Pellegrino(Nestle), Wahaha (Hangzhou Wahaha Group).
Senior lecturer in chemistry at the University of East Anglia, and developer of the test method used, Andrew Mayes said, “I’ve looked in some detail at the finer points of the way the work was done, and I’m satisfied that it has been applied carefully and appropriately, in a way that I would have done it in my lab.”
About the particles
Polypropylene is often used to make plastic bottle caps and was found to be the most common material (54%) while nylon being the second most abundant (16%).
On the other hand, microplastics are formed as a result of the breakdown of all the plastic waste that made its way into landfills and oceans. They are also manufactured intentionally, as microbeads used in skin care products were found filling the stomachs of fish. Thus, anything smaller than five millimetres in size (5,000 microns) is considered microplastic.
The science behind the test
After the bottles were shipped to the specialised lab at SUNY in Fredonia, N.Y., scientists used Nile Red Fluorescent tagging, an emerging method for the rapid identification of microplastics as the due binds to plastic.
After infusing each bottle with that dye, it was poured through a glass fibre filter.
When viewed through a microscope under blue light and with the help of orange goggles, the residue from each bottle could be seen.
They were able to identify specific plastics over 100 microns (0.10 mm) in size but not smaller particles. As compared to tap water on average, there were twice as many plastic particles. However, the research also concluded that instead of the water being contaminated, the process of bottling the water could be the reason too.
Researchers said, “As polypropylene was the most common polymer found, the fragments could also be breaking off the cap, even entering the water through the simple act of opening the bottle.”
What brands said in response
Nestle and Gerolsteiner confirmed their testing showed that their water contained micro plastics, but at much lower levels than what Orb Media is reporting.
Nestlé criticized the methodology saying that the technique using Nile red dye could “generate false positives”.
As a matter of fact bottle of Nestle Pure Life, water showed the highest levels in Orb Media’s study, with 10,390 particles per litre.
“We still cannot understand how the study reached the conclusions it did. The research results do not stand in line with the internal analyses that we do on a routined bases,” Nestle company said.
Gerolsteiner spokesperson said, “Concentrations of plastics in water from their analyses were lower than those allowed in pharmaceutical products.”
Coca-Cola, whose Dasani water brand was one of those tested, said in a statement: “We have some of the most stringent quality standards in the industry, and the water we use in our drinks is subject to multi-step filtration processes before production. As Orb Media’s reporting has shown, microscopic plastic fibres appear to be ubiquitous and therefore may be found at minute levels even in highly treated products. We stand by the safety of our products, and welcome continued the study of plastics in our environment.”
Danone claimed that the methodology used by Orb Media was “unclear”.
The American Beverage Association, which represents many of the biggest brands across North America, including Nestle, Evian, Dasani and Aquafina said, “The science on microplastics and microfibres is nascent and an emerging field. We stand by the safety of our bottled water products, and we are interested in contributing to serious scientific research that will … help us all understand the scope, impact and appropriate next steps.”
What others had to say
A spokesperson for the World Health Organization said, “We are aware of the study about micro plastic in the bottled water. Currently, there is no evidence on impacts to human health.”
“For WHO to make an informed risk assessment, we would need to establish that microplastics occur in water at concentrations that would be harmful to human health.Information on occurrence in water is very limited, and there is no information on the impact to human health,” he added.
He further informed that “While WHO continues to prioritise addressing known significant waterborne risks to health, we are aware that this is an emerging area of concern for consumers and member states. Thus WHO, as part of its continuous review of new evidence on water quality, would review the very scarce available evidence with the objective of identifying evidence gaps, and establishing a research agenda to inform a more thorough risk assessment.”
On the other hand, a spokesperson from the Food Standards Agency, said, “Based on current information, including the evaluation on the safety of microplastics exposure from food undertaken by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), it is unlikely that the levels of microplastic particles reported in this study to be present in bottled water would cause harm to consumers.
Orb Media explained, “Some particles might lodge in the intestinal wall. Others might be taken up by the intestinal tissue to travel through the body’s lymphatic system. Particles around 110 microns in size (0.11 millimetres) can end up being lodged in the gut, or travelling through lymphatic system.”
The amount of plastics is certain to escalate in the time to come. Vast quantities of plastics will float on the surface, trapping sea life and blocking the sun’s rays from entering the waters.
Mason points out people can choose to carry a refillable bottle over a plastic bottle. However, even if for this, the majority of the products on grocery and retail store shelves are contaminated with plastic.