Microplastics in Water: What You Need to Know in 2022

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic waste that have several known health concerns when found in drinking water. However, there is limited data to support the potential effects of human exposure to microplastics, so they’re not currently regulated nationally.

This glossary discusses everything you need to know about plastic particles in water, including how they get there, their health effects, and how to protect your family from these contaminants.

❔ What are Microplastics?

💡 Microplastics are plastic particles that get into the environment from the breakdown of industrial waste and plastic products. Microplastic particles are less than five millimeters long and have serious environmental implications and a potentially significant impact on human health.

Most microplastics are formed when they break away from fragmented larger plastics over a period of decades or centuries. Some microplastics are intentionally produced by companies for certain commercial products, such as facial scrubs containing cosmetic microbeads.

Microplastics in drinking water

Once they’ve been used for their intended purpose (such as in plastic water bottles or cosmetic products), microplastics have no use or purpose. The minuscule size of microplastic particles makes them incredibly difficult to remove from the environment.

The typical particle size range for microplastics is 1 nanometer to 5 millimeters.

In Water AsTiny pieces of plastic waste
SourcesSurface run-off
Sewer overflows
Wastewater or industrial effluent
Atmospheric deposition
Degraded plastic waste
Maximum
Contaminant Levels (MCLs)
No official guidelines
Potential Health RisksAllergic reactions
Carcinogenic effects
Poor fetal brain development
Damage to human cells and cell death
TreatmentsReverse Osmosis
Carbon Block Filters
Distillers

🩺 What are the Potential Health Effects of Microplastics?

According to News Medical, different microplastics have different known health risks. The most common potential health risks of microplastic concentrations in water are:

  • Neurotoxicity
  • Carcinogenic effects
  • Disrupted hormone function
  • Weight gain
  • Poor fetal brain development
  • Damage to human cells and cell death
  • Allergic reactions

Microplastics can also carry several contaminants, such as harmful organic chemical pollutants and trace metals. These contaminants may leach from the plastic particles once inside the human body, increasing the likely health risks.

There are limited studies into the human health effects of plastic consumption, and a lot we don’t know so far. Most studies focus on small groups of people.

🚰 How Do Microplastics Get Into Drinking Water?

Microplastics get into drinking water sources from:

  • Surface run-off (after rain or snow)
  • Sewer overflows
  • Wastewater or industrial effluent
  • Atmospheric deposition
  • Degraded plastic waste

The two main sources of plastic pollution in drinking water are surface run-off and wastewater effluent. Caps and plastic bottles are other sources of microplastics in tap water.

Microplastic pollution most commonly occurs in surface water, but it may also occur in groundwater. For instance, if water seeps through ground that has been polluted with plastic waste, the particles from the plastic fibers will leach into the water.

Breakdown of single use plastic containers create microplastics in water

📉 Do Water Treatment Facilities Monitor Levels of Microplastics in Drinking Water?

Some drinking water treatment plants may choose to monitor levels of microplastics in drinking water.

However, because the human health risk assessment into microplastic consumption has uncovered minimal evidence, water facilities aren’t legally required to routinely monitor their public drinking water supplies for microplastics.

📌 There are no official Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for plastic pollution in tap water. That means that some water sources may naturally contain more microplastics than others, and some suppliers might filter a larger concentration of microplastics out of their water than others.

Not all organizations agree with the EPA’s decision not to regulate microplastics due to a lack of evidence about their health risks. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) believes that the EPA is “incapable” of protecting human health from metal and chemical toxicity in water and reported that millions of Americans drink water with microplastics detected every day.

Some local municipalities have their own regulations for plastic pollution, but most actions developed are focused on large plastics, such as plastic bags.

🔎 How Can I Tell if Microplastics Are in My Drinking Water?

Microplastics are so small that they’re invisible to the naked eye. They also have no taste or odor, so you won’t be able to tell whether your tap water contains plastic particles by looking at, smelling, or tasting it.

The best way to find out about microplastic contamination in your water is with water testing. Because microplastics are small and difficult to test, you’ll need to contact a laboratory with experience in microplastic analysis that can use specialized methods to detect these contaminants.

Most laboratories will ask you to take one or several water samples from your faucet. These water samples will be professionally tested to determine your water’s analytical chemistry.

You can choose to get your water tested just for microplastics, or choose a general water quality test that detects microplastics and other common drinking water contaminants.

Once you know whether or not your water contains microplastics, you can decide on a suitable water treatment solution (if necessary).

Testing microplastics in water

👩🏽‍⚕️ How Can I Protect My Family from Microplastics in Drinking Water?

The best way to protect your family from microplastics in water is to install a water treatment system that can remove these contaminants.

There are three types of filters that are effective at reducing or removing microplastics in tap water:

  • Reverse osmosis – RO systems send water at a high pressure through a semipermeable membrane. The pore size of an RO membrane is typically 0.0001 microns – small enough to trap all plastic particles. Reverse osmosis is the most effective treatment method for water containing microplastics. Most RO systems are installed as countertop or under-sink units. Reverse osmosis produces between 1 and 4 gallons of water waste for every 1 gallon of purified water produced.
  • Carbon block filters – Some carbon block filters are capable of removing up to 100% of microplastics. Carbon block filter media has a pore size as small as 0.5 microns. Most plastic particles are about 2.5 microns, so carbon block is small enough to filter these contaminants out of water. Common applications for carbon block media are faucet filters, water pitcher filters, and countertop filters.
  • Distillers – Distillation is another highly effective water purification method. Most water distillers can remove virtually 100% of all contaminants, including microplastics. A distiller works by boiling water until it evaporates. The water vapor travels down a cooling corridor and condenses into a separate container. All the contaminants that have different boiling points to water, and are unable to evaporate, are left behind in the boiling chamber. Distillation is effective but slow, taking 4-6 hours to purify 1 gallon of water.

📌 Note: switching to bottled water won’t reduce your risk of microplastic consumption. In fact, bottled water often contains more microplastics than tap water because it’s stored in a plastic container. And, like tap water, there are no regulatory limits for microplastics in bottled water. Bottled water compared to tap water is really not so different.

Reverse osmosis system and distiller

⚠️ How Else Can I Be Exposed to Microplastics?

It’s estimated that we’re exposed to around 100, 000 microplastic particles each day.

Aside from drinking microplastics in tap water, some of the most common sources of microplastic exposure are:

  • Through inhaling plastic particles in the air
  • Through eating plastic-contaminated foods (such as certain fruits and vegetables, which draw microplastics through their roots), foods stored in plastic containers, or bottled drinking water products that are contaminated with microplastics
  • Through dermal exposure (such as from synthetic clothing with plastic fibers)

Reducing your plastic exposures is extremely difficult because microplastics are so widely present in the atmosphere and the ocean. Both bottled and tap water contain microplastics, so switching from one water supply to another is unlikely to decrease your exposure.

To protect future generations from plastic contamination, there’s only one solution: reduce our plastic consumption. The fewer plastics there are in the world’s oceans and the environment, the lower the risk of human exposure.

There are plenty of ways to reduce your plastic consumption in everyday life, including:

  • Avoid buying foods that are packaged in plastic
  • Bring your own reusable bag on shopping trips
  • Carry a reusable flask or cup to the coffee shop
  • Don’t use a straw unless you need one – or buy your own bamboo straw
  • Don’t use tea bags that have been sealed with plastic
  • Avoid chewing gum that has been made from plastic
  • Buy bottled milk in cardboard, not plastic, cartons

Decreasing your plastic use might feel like a small action in the grand scheme of things. But the environmental benefits of this would be significant if everybody in the world made the effort to go plastic-free.

📝 Where Can I Get More Information?

Follow the links below to find out more about microplastics in water, including their origins and potential human health risks.