Bottled water contains 100 times more plastic particles than previously thought

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In a groundbreaking study, scientists have discovered that bottled water sold in retail may have 10 to 100 times more plastic fragments than previously believed — these are nanoparticles, incredibly tiny and not visible under traditional microscopes. 

Tiny Invaders in Your Water

At a size that’s 1/1000th of a human hair’s width, these nanoplastics can move through our digestive or lung tissues into the bloodstream, potentially spreading harmful chemicals throughout the body and into cells. 

1 Liter of Water, 240,000 Plastic Pieces

The study found that one liter of water, the equivalent of two standard bottled waters, contained an average of 240,000 plastic particles, with a whopping 90% being nanoplastics.

How Small is “Nanoplastics”?

Microplastics are defined as polymer pieces varying in size from below 0.2 inches (5 millimeters) down to a tiny 1/25,000th of an inch (1 micrometer). Any particle smaller than this falls into the nanoplastic category, measured in billionths of a meter.

Untapped Area

Previous research revealed that a single bottle of water can harbor tens of thousands of discernible plastic fragments. Yet, until not so long ago, only the more sizable microplastics were detectable with the tools at our disposal. 

The world of nanoplastics remained largely unexplored.

Filling the Knowledge Gap

Beizhan Yan, an environmental chemist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, acknowledged this gap in a statement, saying, “Previously, this was just a dark area, uncharted. Toxicity studies were just guessing what’s in there.” 

A New Window into the Unseen World

In their latest research, detailed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Yan and his team harnessed advanced technology to delve into this previously unexplored area. 

“This opens a window where we can look into a world that was not exposed to us before,” Yan remarked.

Raman Microscopy’s Findings

Through Raman scattering microscopy, capable of detecting particles as tiny as the COVID virus, the researchers found an average of 240,000 plastic particles in each liter of bottled water, with 90 percent of these being nanoplastics. 

This figure is 10 to 100 times higher than what was previously estimated.

Identifying the Culprit

The plastics discovered in the study are believed to stem from the materials used in the bottles, the filters employed for water purification, and the source water itself. 

Why So Many Nanoplastics?

Naixin Qian, the study’s lead author and a Columbia graduate, noted in a statement, “It is not totally unexpected to find so much of this stuff. The idea is that the smaller things get, the more of them there are.”

Expert Praises Study as “Groundbreaking”

Sherri ‘Sam’ Mason, the director of sustainability at Penn State Behrend in Erie, Pennsylvania, who didn’t take part in the study, was thoroughly impressed by the research.

“This study, I have to say, is exceedingly impressive. The body of work that they put into this was really quite profound … I would call it groundbreaking,” she expressed. 

Glass and Steel for Safer Drinking

Mason also emphasized that these new findings support the longstanding recommendation for drinking tap water from glass or stainless steel containers to minimize exposure. She added that this advice should also be considered for other food and drink products packaged in plastic.

Minimize Exposure

“People don’t think of plastics as shedding but they do,” Mason said. “In almost the same way we’re constantly shedding skin cells, plastics are constantly shedding little bits that break off, such as when you open that plastic container for your store-bought salad or a cheese that’s wrapped in plastic.”

Innovative Approach Unlocks New Avenues

The novel methods employed in this study are key to unlocking further research on the possible health risks, noted Jane Houlihan, research director for Healthy Babies, Bright Futures. This alliance, which was not involved in the study, unites nonprofits, scientists, and donors in a collective effort to lower babies’ exposure to neurotoxic chemicals.

“They suggest widespread human exposures to minuscule plastic particles posing largely unstudied risks,” Houlihan wrote in an email. “Infants and young children may face the greatest risks, as their developing brains and bodies are often more vulnerable to impacts from toxic exposures.”

Tap Water and Beyond

The research team is looking to broaden their study to include tap water and other sources to provide a clearer picture of our exposure to these potentially harmful particles. 

Kate Smith, a self-proclaimed word nerd who relishes the power of language to inform, entertain, and inspire. Kate's passion for sharing knowledge and sparking meaningful conversations fuels her every word.