Plastic in Your Drinking Water, Table Salt & Mother’s Milk

The problem hits close to home when we learn that two items we consume every day: drinking water and table salt, may be contaminated with plastic and that even breast-feeding mothers are contaminating their babies with BPA from plastic. BPA is a plasticizer and monomer, so most plastics contain BPA. BPA is also widely used as a building material and among epoxy applications. Industrial manufacturers use BPA in many processes, resulting in its discharge into the environment. Here we see the cross-disciplinary complex systems nature of the plastics problem: solving the BPA problem alone engages the building and construction industry, many other manufacturing processes and products, biodiversity, diet, and comes full cycle back to breast-feeding mothers.

In 2009 Matt Damon, with Gary White in India, started a foundation called WATER, recognizing that safe, sanitary drinking water is a necessity for life. But now they face a bigger mission, since the water we drink may be unsafe, not only in poor countries but in every country polluted by plastic. In Africa, WATER staff are working in five countries, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. In Asia, WATER has staff in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. And in Latin America they have staff working in Brazil, Honduras, and Peru. This impressive list of countries may need to bring its expertise to every country in the world where plastic is hidden in the water we drink.

83% of tap water samples tested contain plastic fibers, which means that billions of people are drinking plastic polluted water, according to a study published in September 2017 in The Guardian.

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The report assembles data on scores of tap water samples from more than a dozen nations, analyzed by scientists for an investigation by Orb Media. 83% of tap water samples tested contain plastic fibers, which means that billions of people are drinking plastic polluted water.

Dr. Sherri Mason, a microplastic expert at the State University of New York in Fredonia, supervised analyses for Orb Media. “If it’s impacting [wildlife], then how do we think that it’s not going to somehow impact us?”

Prof Richard Thompson, at Plymouth University, UK, told Orb: “It became clear very early on that the plastic would release those chemicals and that actually, the conditions in the gut would facilitate really quite rapid release.” His research has shown microplastics are found in a third of fish caught in the UK.

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A study in Germany found fibres and fragments in all of the 24 beer brands tested, as well as in honey and sugar. In Paris in 2015, researchers discovered microplastic falling from the air, which they estimated deposits three to 10 tonnes of fibers on the city each year, and also in the air in people’s homes.

The Guardian has been ahead of the curve in publishing outstanding articles on the plastic problem, from drinking water to table salt. The European Union has restricted use of BPA, in response to the problem of BPA in mother’s milk.

Scientists have tested 21 types of table salt and found plastic in all of them, especially polyethylene terephthalate, the material used to make plastic bottles. A group of scientists from France, the UK and Malaysia tested 17 types of salt from eight different countries and examined what they believed were plastic particles. They found plastic in all but one sample and found the most of the plastic was from polyethylene and polypropylene. Scientists first found plastics in salt in China in 2015.

Microplastics have been found in table salt tested from Europe (the UK, France and Spain), China and the US, supporting the argument that that plastic pollution is pervasive in the environment and has cycled back to us.

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The photograph above shows two fragments of blue microplastic surrounded by diatom phytoplankton (seen under a microscope) after being collected from the sea in a fine mesh trawl net. Photograph: Alex Hofford/EPA

Professor Sherri Mason of the State University of New York at Fredonia also led the latest research into plastic contamination in salt. Mason collaborated with researchers at the University of Minnesota to examine microplastics in salt, beer and drinking water. Her research looked at 12 different kinds of salt (including 10 sea salts) bought from US grocery stores around the world. The Guardian received an exclusive look at the forthcoming study.

Mason estimates that those Americans who follow health guidelines to eat 2.3 grammes of salt per day may consume more than 660 particles of plastic each year. Since 90% of Americans eat too much salt this figure could be even higher.

Researchers Emily J. North and Rolf U. Halden at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and at Arizona State University wrote in 2013. “Detectable levels of [the plastic] bisphenol A have been found in the urine of 95% of the adult population of the United States.”

Professor Juan Conesa at the University of Alicante in Spain, who studies sea salt, has noted the lack of research into the health impacts of ingesting plastic. And the health impact of ingesting plastic is hard to study because there is no control group that has not ingested plastic.

And, as if plastic in your drinking water and table salt isn’t enough, plastic is also found as Bisphenol in Mothers’ Breast Milk and Infant Urine Samples according to researchers in the School of Nursing and Health Sciences at Boston’s Simmons College who tested the breast milk of 27 women and the urine of 31 infants between three months and 15 months old, who were screened for environmental exposure to BPA sources. The infants tested had no known environmental exposure outside of a typical household. 93% of the children had significant total BPA levels – averaging from 1.2 to 4.4 micrograms per liter.

Swedish researchers tested BPA levels among 100 women and correlated those levels with their exposure to BPA from their diets, finding that the most prevalent BPA sources come from fish, meat, potatoes, and dairy products. Bisphenol A is a known hormone disruptor that attaches to estrogen receptors within the body and has been linked with cancer. A 2006 Chemical Heritage Foundation study conducted on request from Congress concluded that BPA levels found in humans are enough to cause harm and metabolism changes within many of the body’s tissues and organs. “New research on very-low-dose exposure to BPA suggests an association with adverse health effects, including breast and prostate cancer, obesity, neurobehavioral problems, and reproductive abnormalities.”

The United Nations reports that up to to 12.7m tonnes of plastic enters the world’s oceans every year, which is equivalent to dumping one garbage truck of plastic per minute into the world’s oceans. Hugo Tagholm of the marine conservation and campaigning group Surfers Against Sewage notes that recycling cannot keep up with production, which is expected to quadruple by 2050. Some environmentalists warn that the threat of plastic pollution now “rivals climate change.”

Special Thanks: The Guardian for groundbreaking coverage of environmental issues, e.g. plastics and to M. Burgess and I. Stalew for supplying information for this article. Z. Gill for earthDECKS.

REFERENCES

Geyer R,  Jambeck J R., Law KL. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances  19 Jul 2017: Vol. 3, no. 7, e1700782 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700782

Mendonca K, Hauser R, Calafat AM, Arbuckle TE, Duty SM. Bisphenol A concentrations in maternal breast milk and infant urine. Int Arch Occup Environ Health. 2012 Dec 5.

Koch HM, Kolossa-Gehring M, Schröter-Kermani C, Angerer J, Brüning T. Bisphenol A in 24h urine and plasma samples of the German Environmental Specimen Bank from 1995 to 2009: A retrospective exposure evaluation. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2012 Nov;22(6):610-6.

Gyllenhammar I, Glynn A, Darnerud PO, Lignell S, van Delft R, Aune M. 4-Nonylphenol and bisphenol A in Swedish food and exposure in Swedish nursing women. Environ Int. 2012 Aug;43:21-8.

Ye X, Zhou X, Wong LY, Calafat AM. Concentrations of Bisphenol A and Seven Other Phenols in Pooled Sera from 3-11 Year Old Children: 2001-2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Environ Sci Technol. 2012 Oct 26.

Lee W, Kang CW, Su CK, Okubo K, Nagahama Y. Screening estrogenic activity of environmental contaminants and water samples using a transgenic medaka embryo bioassay. Chemosphere. 2012 Aug;88(8):945-52.

Vogel SA. The politics of plastics: the making and unmaking of bisphenol a “safety”. Am J Public Health. 2009 Nov;99 Suppl 3:S559-66.



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