World Health Organisation Warns Microplastics Entering Global Water Supplies

400 million tonnes of plastic are produced each year, and the latest report from the World Health Organisation says microplastics are now making their way into the drinking water of billions.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has released a startling report saying that microplastics have been found in the water supply for billions across the globe, and the number is only expected to rise as plastic manufacturing increases in the absence of effective waste management solutions.

You can read the World Health Organisation’s press release here and access the report in full here.

‘On average, we ingest around 2,000 microplastic particles each week- that’s a credit card each week’.

Among the findings were that microplastics “are ubiquitous in the environment and have been detected in a broad range of concentrations in marine water, wastewater, fresh water, food, air and drinking-water, both bottles and tap water.” The WHO warns that potential hazards from ingesting microplastics come in three forms: “physical particles, chemicals and microbial pathogens” however, in the words of the WHO, “there is insufficient information to draw firm conclusions on the toxicity related to the physical hazard of plastic particles.”

“Key sources of microplastic pollution in fresh water sources are terrestrial run-off and wastewater effluent. However, optimized wastewater (and drinking water treatment can effectively remove most microplastics from the effluent.”

According to statistics published by The ABC, “microplastic concentration in rivers and lakes range from 4.7 particles per litre to 1 particle in 20 litres. In bottled drinking water, however, recorded concentrations were far, far higher. Bottled mineral water found concentrations of about 5000 particles per litre in reusable plastic bottles and up to 6000 in glass.” Perhaps most startling of all, ‘On average, we ingest around 2,000 microplastic particles each week- that’s a credit card each week’.

Graphic Courtesy of the World Health Organisation

The problem is set to be compounded by the fact that global plastic production is set to double by 2025, and more than triple by the 2050-mark.

Director of the Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health at the World Health Organisation, Dr Maria Neira says that “we urgently need to know more about the health impacts of microplastics because they are everywhere- including in our drinking water.”

“Based on the limited information we have, microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels. But we need to find out more. We also need to stop the rise in plastic pollution worldwide,” Dr Neira concluded.

The WHO report says the following sources are all contributing to microplastics entering the water supply:

-Road surface run-off from the breakdown of road-marking paints and tyre wear debris

-Fibres released from textiles due to wear-and-tear and washing

-Abrasion from the shoe soles and artificial turf (known collectively as 'city dust')

-Agricultural plastics used for mulching

-Cosmetic microbeads

-Disintegrated parts of consumer products flushed down toilets and sinks

-Nurdles - also known as pre-production pellets - are the raw material of the plastic industry. They're made into bottles, bags, straws, and so on

-Degraded fishing nets and other 'macroplastic debris' in the ocean

-Treatment plants themselves - their components and pipes are made from plastic and can erode or degrade, contributing to the problem

-The bottles and caps of bottled water

The WHO says that addressing the problem of microplastics in the water supply has a two-fold benefit: filtering out both plastics and bacteria that contributes to the premature death of thousands worldwide through diarrhoeal diseases. “WHO recommends drinking-water suppliers and regulators prioritize removing microbial pathogens and chemicals that are known risks to human health. This has a double advantage: wastewater and drinking water treatment systems that treat faecal content and chemicals are also effective in removing microplastics.”

“Wastewater treatment can remove more than 90% of microplastics from wastewater, with the highest removal coming from tertiary treatment such as filtration,” the release continues. “Conventional drinking water treatment can remove particles smaller than a micrometer. A significant proportion of the global population currently does not benefit from adequate water and sewage treatment,” the statement concludes.

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