Science With Purpose

Microplastics in Drinking Water: Unseen Particles, Unseen Dangers

March 5, 2024
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Every year, we create about 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste, and nine million tons of it finds its way into our oceans, lakes, rivers, and streams – and with a lifespan of up to 450 years, that constitutes lasting damage, no matter how you look at it.

Much of that damage comes by way of microplastics – tiny plastic particles, often invisible to the naked eye, that have permeated various ecosystems, including our oceans, soil, and even the air we breathe. One of the most alarming discoveries is the presence of microplastics in drinking water sources and the potential impact they could have on human health.

What Are Microplastics?

Microplastics are plastic particles measuring less than 5 millimeters in size. They can be categorized into two primary groups: primary microplastics, which are intentionally manufactured for various purposes such as microbeads in personal care products, and secondary microplastics, which result from the breakdown of larger plastic items due to weathering and degradation.

Microplastics in Drinking Water: Where Do They Come From?

Wastewater and Runoff: Everyday activities, such as washing synthetic clothing, using personal care products containing microbeads, and improper disposal of plastic waste, contribute to the release of microplastics into the wastewater system. These particles can then find their way into natural water bodies and, eventually, drinking water sources.

Atmospheric Deposition: Microplastics from various sources can become airborne and settle back to the ground through atmospheric deposition. This can contaminate surface water and groundwater, which are potential sources of drinking water.

Water Treatment Processes: Some microplastics might be introduced during water treatment processes, such as the breakdown of larger plastic items used in the water distribution system or through the addition of certain chemicals.

Microplastics and Human Health

The presence of microplastics in drinking water raises concerns about potential health impacts, although the full extent of these effects is still being studied. Some potential concerns include:

Ingestion: Microplastics in drinking water can be ingested by humans. While the effects of consuming microplastics on human health are not yet fully understood, there is concern that these particles may accumulate in the body over time.

Chemical Contamination: Microplastics can absorb and carry various chemicals and toxins, including persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals. If ingested, these chemicals could be released in the digestive system, potentially posing health risks.

Microbial Growth: Microplastics in water can serve as a surface for bacteria and other microorganisms to attach and grow, potentially affecting water quality and human health.

What Can We Do to Mitigate Risks?

To address the issue of microplastics in drinking water, a comprehensive approach is required:

Enhanced Water Treatment: Water treatment facilities should be equipped with advanced filtration methods capable of effectively removing microplastics from drinking water sources.

Reduce Plastic Use: Governments and industries must work together to reduce the production and use of single-use plastics. Encouraging the use of alternative materials and recycling initiatives can help minimize plastic pollution.

Public Awareness and Education: Raising awareness about the impacts of plastic pollution on water sources and human health is crucial. Educating the public about responsible plastic use and proper waste disposal can foster positive behavioral changes.

Research and Monitoring: Continued research is essential to understanding the full extent of microplastic contamination in drinking water and its potential health implications. Regular monitoring of water sources can help identify contamination hotspots and assess the effectiveness of mitigation efforts.

Microplastics in drinking water is an environmental and public health concern that requires urgent attention and action. As the scale of plastic pollution continues to grow, it’s imperative for individuals, communities, governments, and industries to come together to address this challenge. By adopting sustainable practices, promoting responsible plastic use, and investing in advanced water treatment technologies, we can work toward safeguarding our precious water resources and ensuring a healthier future for generations to come.

To learn more about microplastics and the efforts being taking to address their presence in drinking water, listen to our conversation with Dr. Scott Coffin, a research scientist at the California State Water Resources Control Board.

Learn More: Video Q&A: Regulating Microplastics, Mitigating Macro Risks


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