What’s in your water?
The thought that water equals life has become a rallying cry for environmentalists and others who think we should pay more attention to the liquid that fills our lakes, rivers and oceans—an especially poignant thought in an area like the Upper Delaware that is in a sense defined by the body of water that threads through it.
And the concept seems to be catching on. At the very end of 2015, then-president Barack Obama signed a bill that banned the use of microbeads in toothpaste, soaps and other personal-care products, because those tiny plastic beads were making their way into the world’s waterways and posing a hazard to marine life.
But it turns out microbeads were just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to plastic contamination in water. A journalism website called Orb Media (tinyurl.com/yb moja3m) tested over 150 samples of drinking water from around the globe and found that 83% of the samples were contaminated with microplastics—minute plastic fibers and segments. In the United States, the water samples included one from Trump Tower and another from the Capital Building, and both tested positive. In fact, 94% of U.S. samples tested positive for contamination.
The report said, “Orb found approximately 16 fibers in the tap water at the visitors center in the U.S. Capitol, home to both houses of Congress.” The amount of water tested for each location was half a liter, or slightly more than a pint.
The contamination comes from a lot of things we all use on a daily basis. Automobile tires, for example, all create what’s called tire dust, which is washed into sewers, streams and rivers. There are also synthetic fibers in clothing, which shed thousands of tiny fibers every time they are washed. There are plastic bags, containers, paints and many other plastic products that provide tiny bits of contamination that are almost certainly finding their way into our bodies.
It was well known before this survey that microplastics have been found in many forms of marine life, and the contamination has also turned up in sea salt, beer and honey. But according the authors of the Orb survey, they could find no existing studies about microplastics in tap water, so they conducted one of their own.
So, does this have a negative impact on human health? No one seems to know. The Orb article says, “The first studies into the health effects of microscopic plastics on humans are only just now beginning; there’s no telling if or when governments might establish a ‘safe’ threshold for plastic in water and food. Even farther away are studies of human exposure to nano-scale plastic particles, plastic measured in the millionths of a millimeter.”
Certainly no reasonable person wants to knowingly ingest plastic, but it’s just as certain that almost all of us are doing so. So, as with the burning of fossil fuels relating to climate change, the human race is conducting another huge experiment on the environment and human and animal health, with the outcome uncertain.
The Orb report quotes Mark Brown, a senior research assistant at the University of New South Wales, who addresses the question the question of responsibility. He said, “Whenever you fractionalize a problem, as with the plastic industry not being held responsible for their particular types of waste, there’s capacity for that industry then to blame another. So it’s waste management; it’s not the producer’s fault. It’s the sewage treatment people’s fault. It’s not the actual clothing manufacturer’s fault. It’s the people who’ve got the washing machine’s fault. It’s somebody else’s fault. Generally speaking, it’s all of our fault.”
There are a number of ways to reduce the amount of microplastics in the environment, and one of them is recycling. Only about 22% of garbage in the United States is recycled, and if more plastic were recycled, less of it would end up in drinking water supplies.
The report points out that every day a billion plastic straws are used for about 20 minutes and then thrown out. Could we possibly convince a billion people to give up the use of straws, or perhaps to purchase a metal one that could be reused?
Sadly, it’s likely to be an uphill battle. People around the world have become dependent on plastic, and on both the consumption and production end won’t want to make do without it, even if it means tiny bits of it will end up in their stomachs.
The testing of the water was performed by Mary Kosuth at the University of Minnesota School of Public who wrote, “Since this is the first global tap-water survey of plastic pollution to have been completed, the results of this study serve as an initial glimpse at the consequences of human plastic use [and] disposal rather than a comprehensive assessment of global plastic contamination.”
Let’s hope the investigation continues. In the meantime, perhaps we can all become more conscious of the plastic in the things we are buying and using, and search for natural alternatives whenever we can. We in the river valley, whose waste finds its way directly into one of the nation’s great rivers, have perhaps a special obligation in this regard.