The Hidden Health Hazard in Bottled Water
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“Researchers have found that bottled water can contain 10 to 100 times more plastic than previously thought.”
Even though there have been serious environmental concerns about the accumulation of empty plastic bottles in the world’s oceans for some time, recent research has brought to light an even more concerning reality about bottled water – it contains tiny plastic particles, invisible to the naked eye, that may pose health risks. This discovery challenges the perception of bottled water as a safe and pure drinking option. Researchers have found that bottled water can contain 10 to 100 times more plastic than previously thought.
A study, led by Qian et al. from Columbia University and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2024, reveals that bottled water contains nano plastics at concentrations far exceeding previous estimates. Researchers found that one liter of bottled water could contain an average of 240,000 plastic particles, primarily nano plastics. Nano plastics, at 1000th the width of a human hair, are so minute that they can migrate through bodily tissues. In 2018, scientists from the State University of New York found that a single bottle of water contained, on average, 325 fragments of microplastics.
“Due to their [nanoplastics] size, they can penetrate cells and tissues, potentially disrupting bodily functions and carrying harmful endocrine-disrupting chemicals.”
Emerging research has led to the hypothesis that these microplastics may be linked to unexplained patterns in Western diseases, such as the rising incidence of colorectal cancers in younger populations and increases in Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Moreover, there is growing concern about the role of these microplastics in the global progressive reduction in fertility and the increase in type 2 diabetes. In fact, in 2018, several common endocrine disruptors cost the nation almost $250 billion, highlighting the enormous economic impact of these health issues. Although these associations are not yet conclusively proven, they highlight a potential new environmental risk factor. The health implications of consuming nano plastics are a major concern. Due to their small size, they can penetrate cells and tissues, potentially disrupting bodily functions and carrying harmful endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as phthalates, per- and polyfluorinated substances, or PFAS, and heavy metals. These chemicals mimic and are known to interfere with hormonal functions. They have been linked to conditions like increased blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, fertility issues, heart disease, and breast and prostate cancer. The plastics have been discovered in human lung tissues, feces, and blood. However, the impacts of plastic itself on one’s health are still to be determined. Research has shown that these chemicals can migrate to your brain and through the placental boundary into a fetus.
The study delves into the source of these nano plastics. While some may originate from the bottling process or the breakdown of larger plastics, others likely stem from environmental pollution. This finding reflects a broader issue of global plastic contamination. The presence of nano plastics in bottled water is a stark reminder of the pervasive nature of plastic pollution. From oceans to our drinking sources and food chain, plastics are found everywhere, and their impact on the environment and health is increasingly evident. According to the United Nations, humans produce more than 440 million tons of plastic each year. One analysis revealed that approximately 80% of plastic ends up in landfills with access to ground water, or end up in the oceans. Research is currently being carried out to see how much plastics are in tap water.
“The new finding reinforces the recommendation to drink water from reusable glass or stainless steel containers to reduce exposure.”
To mitigate these risks, drinking filtered tap water when possible is advisable. Filters with 1 micron or less pore size can significantly reduce microplastics. However, it is crucial to ensure that the filters themselves are not made of plastic, as this could introduce more microplastics into the water. Ceramic or carbon filters certified by NSF International or the Water Quality Association are recommended options. The new finding reinforces the recommendation to drink water from reusable glass, cardboard or stainless steel containers to reduce exposure. You can minimize your exposure to micro- and nanoplastics by ensuring the bottle is not in direct sunlight or becomes heated, such as leaving it in your car. If you want to reduce your exposure further, try limiting your use of other plastic products, such as food containers and single-use grocery bags.
The discovery of nano plastics in bottled water is a significant concern, highlighting a hidden risk in a product that has been promoted based on its advantage over tap water, and which many consider safe. The use of bottled water has become so ubiquitous that you cannot escape the exposure in schools, hotels and conferences. For years, powerful lobbies have prevented legislation to ban plastic containers for drinks and food.
This study calls for more research into the role of nano plastics in the development of several serious diseases and urges a more aggressive reevaluation of plastic use and regulation. It’s a wake-up call for industries and policymakers to finally consider the plastics’ lifecycle and environmental footprint.