There's a 93% Chance Your Bottled Water Contains Microplastics

An inflammatory new report has consumers in a tizzy, while the WHO plans to investigate.

By Ethan L. Johns
March 16, 2018

Image: GNL Media/Getty Images

Water in a plastic bottle is safer than other waters, right? In comparison to unfiltered, contaminated groundwater, this much is clear. But what happens when the plastic itself becomes the contaminant?

A new study from researchers at SUNY Fredonia reported the presence of plastics in the majority of single-use water bottles examined. The report, led by journalism collective Orb Media, depicts a water bottle market rife with contamination, claiming that 93 percent of the 259 bottles of water studied contained traces of what were “likely” microplastics.

Eleven brands from around the globe were studied, including Aquafina, Dasani, Evian, Nestle and San Pellegrino. Bottles made by Aqua (Indonesia), Bisleri (India), Epura (Mexico), Gerolsteiner (Germany), Minalba (Brazil) and Wahaha (China) were also examined.

Particles were divided and classified by size; those above 100 microns (about the size of a grain of salt) were identified as polypropylene (54 percent), nylon (16 percent), polystyrene (11 percent), polyethylene (10 percent), with other compounds making up the rest.

Those particles smaller than 100 microns in size were unable to be identified individually, but, due to the dye process used to make the contaminants visible, were considered "likely" to be plastics, and were tallied using computer software that was created to count galaxies in outer space.

In scientific terms, it’s important to note that the report from Orb Media has not been peer-reviewed, nor has it been published in any scientific journal. There is little concrete evidence as to the health effects of microplastics on the human body, but concerns are growing that toxicity may result from the accumulation of particles in the body.

"There are connections to increases in certain kinds of cancer to lower sperm count to increases in conditions like ADHD and autism," Sherri Mason, lead researcher for the study, told Agence France-Presse.

The bottled water brands were quick to respond, citing lack of regulation and testing methods for microplastics in consumer products.

“The non-peer reviewed study released by Orb Media is not based on sound science, and there is no scientific consensus on testing methodology or the potential health impacts of microplastic particles,” wrote the International Bottled Water Association in a statement. “Therefore, this study’s findings do nothing more than unnecessarily scare consumers.”

The association then went on to attack Orb Media's objectivity, accusing it of producing a study to support its preconceived position.

A selection of experts in the field, on the other hand, confirmed to the BBC that the study’s findings were, in fact, quite conservative, and that the dying techniques used have “a very good pedigree.”

The BBC also reported on Thursday that the World Health Organization would be investigating the “state of knowledge” around microplastics to determine whether they can have a negative impact on human health.

In the meantime, tap water might be a safe bet. A similar Orb Media study showed that, while tap water contains the same microplastics, concentrations are lower. Then, of course, there’s always the environmental impact of cutting out plastic purchases.

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About Ethan L. Johns

Ethan is the Food News Writer at Genius Kitchen. An expert on the Parisian bistrot, he likes bitters and salted butters, and is no fan of dessert unless it's made with fruit. His hobbies include reading up on the history of borscht and attempting to roll perfect couscous by hand. Twits & Instagram @EthanLJohns