Think about your daily routine -- every minute from the moment you brush your teeth in the morning until the second your head lands on your pillow. Now think about how much plastic you use in that time. More likely than not, you'll begin to realize that plastic is nearly unavoidable, from synthetic materials used to construct your clothes to the containers that hold your favorite foods.
That dependency on plastic, according to a recent study conducted by the nonprofit Orb Media, may have unforeseen consequences, particularly when it comes to tap water. Researchers found that 83 percent of the 159 tap water samples surveyed from 14 countries were contaminated with plastic fibers.
"If you're a human and you breathe air, and you drink water, this should be a concern for you."
Mary Kosuth, a researcher at the University of Minnesota who conducted the water tests, explained that the plastic fibers were small, measuring about 5 millimeters in length. That's about the size of half her pinkie, she added. While that may not sound alarming, she said the fibers have the ability to absorb toxic chemicals.
"It forms this very thin film around the plastic, which makes it sort of like a little poison pill because it has higher concentrations of, in some cases, heavy metals or chemicals like PCBs."
Also known as polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs were banned in the United States in 1979 amid suggestions that they had unintended impacts on human and environmental health, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PCBs were also linked to cancer in animals as well as a number of serious non-cancer effects on the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems.
The plastic fibers appeared in samples surveyed from places like Indonesia, Cuba, France, Switzerland, Uganda and Slovakia. However, of all the countries studied, the United States ranked among the worst. According to the study, 94 percent of the tap water samples from the U.S. had microscopic plastic fibers, while only 72 percent of the samples from Europe were contaminated.
While it may be surprising to some that the water samples from the U.S. saw the highest prevalence of the fibers, Mary said that the fibers don't really have anything to do with how well a country filters its water.
"Maybe you would assume that we would have some of the cleanest water because we have the technology for filtering, but that's not necessarily the case," she continued. "The problem isn't so much about filtering. It's more about the source of plastic."
In fact, the United States leads the world in terms of plastic consumption. According to a 2014 report conducted by the market research company Plastics Insight, the per capita consumption of plastic materials in the U.S. measured at about 150 pounds per person.
So how does the plastic end up in the water? One explanation is that plastic isn't biodegradable, meaning, the material doesn't completely break down. Over time, the plastic divides into small particles, which then could end up in drinking water sources.
Mary said that the results of the global tap water study are preliminary, and that more research will need to be done to confirm the source of the plastic fibers.
And if plastic fibers are in tap water, that probably means that there are fibers in other items we consume, such as juice, tea, coffee, pasta, and even fish.
"There's plenty of evidence that shows that these plastic particles are in marine organisms."
The plastic problem may sound debilitating, but Mary said it's important for individuals not to obsess over it. She agreed that it's a large issue to swallow, but it's one that can be reversed with collective effort.
"The great news is that I think that this is something that we can solve. This is the first step in the process, which is identifying that there's a problem. We need to do more work. We need to investigate further where it's coming from, before we can solve the problem. I would urge people not to despair about this. We just have to have a conversation with a group of people as a society. Is this the environment we want to live in?"
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