Microplastics can be found in bottled water from around the world – according to a major new study using methodology developed by researchers from the University of East Anglia.
The investigation, coordinated by Orb Media and reported on BBC News at 10, found that most of the 259 bottles of water tested were contaminated with microplastics.
The method of detecting microplastics used in this study was developed at UEA with collaborators at Cefas and was published in Nature Scientific Reports in 2017.
Microplastics are small plastic particles, which come from a variety of sources including cosmetics, clothing, industrial processes, packaging materials and degradation of larger plastic items.
It is known that microplastics are found in the environment at high levels, particularly in aquatic and marine ecosystems.
Because plastics do not break down for many years, they can be ingested and accumulated in the bodies and tissues of many organisms. The entire cycle, movement and lifetime of microplastics in the environment is not yet known.
Researchers at UEA’s School of Chemistry and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) pioneered a rapid screening method to identify microscopic plastic particles – as small as a few micrometres – in water and sediment samples.
The method “sees” microplastic particles, by staining them using fluorescent Nile Red dye. The dye adsorbs onto plastic surfaces, making them fluorescent when irradiated with blue light. These fluorescent particles can then be visualised and counted.
Lead researcher Dr Andrew Mayes, from UEA’s School of Chemistry, said: “We are becoming increasingly aware of microplastics in the environment and their potentially harmful effects, but their prevalence in other areas has been much less studied. They have been reported in tap water, beer and many other foods, but I think that people will be surprised that almost all bottled water appears to be contaminated too.”
“This study analysed more than 250 bottles from 27 lots and 11 different brands from around the world, so it is the largest and most comprehensive study of water I know of to date, and almost all were contaminated to some degree. The method we pioneered here at UEA was used, and it is very pleasing to see it used to facilitate this type of large scale study, which would have been hugely time consuming and prohibitively expensive using conventional approaches. We have been involved with independently reviewing the findings and methodology to ensure the study is robust and credible. The results stack up.
“What the results don’t show is where these plastic particles are coming from – but I would expect that most is coming from the processing and packing process, though some may be coming from the original water source in some cases.
“What we do know is that microplastics are in the environment all around us – and they’re accumulating. They’re in the food web in our oceans, and now we know they’re in most of our bottled water too.
“The scale of the bottled water market is a problem – particularly as we have perfectly safe tap water anywhere in the UK. It creates so much waste, which itself feeds into the environmental problem” he added, “whether or not the microplastics in bottled water turn out to be harmful to us.”
‘A rapid-screening approach to detect and quantify microplastics based on fluorescent tagging with Nile Red’ is published in Scientific Reports.