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New Study Finds Microplastic Particles in Bottled Water 

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(Photo: Yanik88/Shutterstock)

Scientists have discovered that microplastics are found in at times remarkably high levels in bottled water. A study by science-based non-profit journalism organisation Orb Media, with testing carried out at the  State University of New York in Fredonia, has found that microplastics – small particles of plastic all but invisible to the naked eye – are present in a wide range of popular brands of bottled water.

Tests were conducted on 259 bottles of water, representing 11 brands, sourced from retail outlets in 19 locations in nine countries, including Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Thailand, and the United States. An average of 10.4 microplastic particles per litre was recorded, but the variation even between bottles of the same brand from the same source was dramatic, ranging from zero detected particles to the highest recorded amount in a single bottle of water of 10,390 pieces.

The tests were conducted in laboratory conditions to minimise any outside contamination, with a red dye injected into the water which bonds to the particles and fluoresces under ultra-violet lighting. Due to the density of microplastic particles in some samples, the scientists sought the advice of an astrophysicist, whose software for counting stars in galaxies was used to count the individual particles present.

Similar tests performed in a 2017 study into microplastics present in tap water, which is the primary source of bottled water, reported a much lower count of microplastic contamination – an average of 4.34 particles per litre. The source of the elevated microplastic contamination in bottled water is unclear, but the manufacturing process is through to be partially responsible.

'Many of these particles are coated in lubricants,' says chemistry Professor Sherri Mason, one of the lead researchers participating in the study, in a Q&A video on the Orb website. 'So ... you're seeing that the manufacturing of the bottled water is affecting the quality of the water that you're drinking.'

Fifty-four per cent of the plastic particles were identified as polypropylene, for example, which is used in the manufacture of bottle caps.

Representatives of the brands that were included in the study were quick to downplay the report, commenting that their own quality assurance standards indicate a much lower presence of microplastic than the report suggests, but as Prof Mason herself commented in an interview with the BBC: 'It's not about pointing fingers at particular brands; it's really showing that this is everywhere, that plastic has become such a pervasive material in our society, and it’s pervading water – all of these products that we consume at a very basic level.'

The danger posed to humans is thought to be small, but there is limited data available in what is an ongoing area of research. 'It's not catastrophic, the numbers that we're seeing,' says Prof Mason, 'but it is concerning.'

The study also highlights a particular problem for developing countries, where bottled water is an essential product due to the thousands of deaths each year from water-borne diseases present in natural water supplies.

Orb Media's full report from the study can be downloaded from https://orbmedia.org/sites/default/files/FinalBottledWaterReport.pdf

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