Orb Media, a nonprofit journalism group based in Los Angeles, supported the collection and analysis of tap water samples by scientists over a ten-month investigation. They found that 83% of the samples of tap water had been contaminated with microplastics. (Here's how to check if your tap water has been contaminated with other chemicals, too.)
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In this study, the US had the highest country contamination rate, at 94%, the same as Beirut in Lebanon, and more than the contamination rate in New Delhi, India, and Kampala, Uganda. Europe still had a contamination rate of 72%. Worse, this problem has the potential to compound itself: plastics don't decompose. They just keep breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces—so small we can't filter them out or realize we are drinking them. And what could be more dangerous is that microplastics have been shown to absorb toxic chemicals linked to cancer and other illnesses, and we don't know exactly how they might be affecting our health yet.
“We have enough data from looking at wildlife, and the impacts that it’s having on wildlife, to be concerned,” said Dr Sherri Mason, a microplastic expert at the State University of New York in Fredonia, who supervised the analyses for Orb, in an interview with The Guardian, “If it’s impacting [wildlife], then how do we think that it’s not going to somehow impact us?”
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This study comes on the heels of a damning study of plastic found in sea salt brands. The study, published in the scientific journal Scientific Reports, analyzed seventeen commercial salt brands from eight different countries on four continents for plastic particles. To do this, they dissolved the salt in water and filtered it to see which particles were left over. They found plastics in all but one brand.
Meanwhile, plastic continues to be produced at a high volume, and is usually not recycled. According to a study published this July in Science Advances, "As of 2015, approximately 6300 million metric tons of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12,000 million metric tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050."
Related: The Truth About Recycling In America
What we can do
More research is still being conducted to determine the adverse health effects this may have, and if it's possible to filter out these plastic particles. As of now, the particles are too small for most water filters to even filter. What you can do to start helping: reduce your use of plastics immediately, and recycle the plastics you do use. Orb Media offers many ideas for cutting down on plastic pollution in their investigative piece.
A few quick and easy ways to use less? Make a resolution to stop using plastic shopping bags at the store altogether (Here are a few tote bags that may be a good substitute). Decline plastic-ware when you order takeout food, and opt for bringing along a fork, butter knife, and spoon. Buy some glass containers for your meal prepping. (Here are the 11 best glass food containers for your meals.)
Also, avoid buying clothes made from synthetic fibers as much as possible. (Opt for organic-fiber clothes instead.) Synthetic fibers making up fleece, polyester, and acrylic clothing are discharged into the water supply at a rate of around 1 million tons per year just from doing laundry.