Scientists Find About a Quarter, Naixin Qian, a Columbia physical chemist, examines a sample of nanoplastics, small plastic particles, under a microscope in New York on Monday, January 8, 2024. A new study discovered that the average liter of bottled water contains nearly a quarter million invisible bits of nanoplastics, which were spotted and classified for the first time using a microscope.
Scientists Find About a Quarter-Million Invisible Nanoplastic Particles
The average liter of bottled water contains roughly a quarter million invisible fragments of ever so tiny nano plastics, which were spotted and classed for the first time by a microscope equipped with twin lasers.
Scientists had long assumed there were a lot of these minuscule plastic fragments, but until researchers at Columbia and Rutgers universities conducted their calculations, they had no idea how many or what kind.
Researchers examined five samples of three prominent bottled water brands and discovered particle levels ranging from 110,000 to 400,000 per liter, with an average of roughly 240,000, according to a report published in Monday’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
These are particles smaller than one micron in size. An inch is made up of 25,400 microns, often known as micrometers since they are one-millionth of a meter. A human hair is around 83 microns wide.
Previous research has focused on slightly larger microplastics ranging from visible 5 millimeters (less than a quarter of an inch) to one micron. According to the study, bottled water had 10 to 100 times more nanoplastics than microplastics.
According to research author Naixin Qian, a Columbia physical chemist, much of the plastic appears to come from the bottle itself as well as the reverse osmosis membrane filter used to keep other impurities out. She refused to reveal the three brands because researchers needed more samples before focusing on one and studying it further. Still, she claimed they were ordinary and purchased at WalMart.
Researchers are yet unable to address the big question: are those nanoplastic fragments detrimental to health?
“That’s currently being reviewed. “We don’t know if or how dangerous it is,” said research co-author Phoebe Stapleton, a toxicologist at Rutgers. “We know that they get into the tissues (of mammals, including people).” And the present study is looking into what they’re doing in the cells.”
According to the International Bottled Water Association, there are currently no standardized (measurement) methodologies and no scientific consensus on the potential health effects of nano- and microplastic particles. As a result, media headlines regarding microscopic particles in drinking water only serve to alarm consumers.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents plastics makers, declined to respond quickly.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the world “is drowning under the weight of plastic pollution, with more than 430 million tonnes of plastic produced annually” and microplastics found in the world’s oceans, food, and drinking water, with some originating from clothing and cigarette filters. After stalled talks in November, efforts to establish a worldwide plastics pact continue.
Following the study, all four co-authors interviewed stated that they were reducing their consumption of bottled water. Wei Min, the Columbia physical chemist who pioneered dual laser microscope technology, claims he has cut his bottled water use by half. Stapleton stated that she now relies more on filtered water at home in New Jersey.
However, research co-author Beizhan Yan, a Columbia environmental chemist who increased his tap water usage, pointed out that filters can be problematic since they introduce plastics.
“There’s just no way to win,” Stapleton remarked. Outside experts, who applauded the study, acknowledged that there is widespread concern about the dangers of small plastic particles, but it is too early to determine definitively.
“The risk of plastics remains an unresolved question. “For me, the additives are the most concerning,” said Duke University professor of medicine and comparative oncology group director Jason Somarelli, who was not involved in the study.
“We and others have shown that these nanoplastics can be internalized into cells and we know that nanoplastics carry all kinds of chemical additives that could cause cell stress, DNA damage, and change metabolism or cell function.”
Somarelli stated that his unpublished research discovered over 100 “known cancer-causing chemicals in these plastics.”
Zoie Diana, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Toronto, expressed concern that “small particles can appear in different organs and may cross membranes that they aren’t meant to cross, such as the blood-brain barrier.”
Diana, who was not involved in the study, stated that the new technology utilized by the researchers is an interesting development in the study of plastics in the environment and body.
Min created the dual laser microscope technique approximately 15 years ago, which recognizes individual substances based on their chemical characteristics and how they vibrate when subjected to lasers.
Yan and Qian discussed using that methodology to uncover and identify polymers that had previously been too small for researchers to detect using conventional methods.
Kara Lavender Law, an oceanographer at the Sea Education Association, believes “the work can be an important advance in the detection of nanoplastics,” but she would like to see other analytical chemists reproduce the technique and findings.
Denise Hardesty, an Australian government oceanographer who investigates plastic trash, believes context is necessary. The overall weight of the discovered nanoplastic is “roughly equivalent to the weight of a single penny in the volume of two Olympic-sized swimming pools.”
Hardesty is less concerned than others about nanoplastics in bottled water, stating, “I’m privileged to live in a place where I have access to ‘clean’ tap water and don’t have to buy drinking water in single-use containers.”
Yan stated that he is beginning to investigate other municipal water systems in Boston, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and others to determine how much plastic is in their tap water.
Previous studies on microplastics, as well as some preliminary testing, suggest that tap water may contain less nanoplastic than bottled water.
Despite the unknowns about human health, Yan said he has one suggestion for those who are concerned: use reusable bottles instead of single-use plastics.