What are microplastics & microbeads and how did they get into my tap water?
Microplastics come from a variety of industrial and waste sources, including from larger plastic debris that degrades into smaller and smaller pieces. In addition, microbeads, a type of microplastic, are very tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic that are added as exfoliants to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes. These tiny particles easily pass through water filtration systems and end up in the ocean and Great Lakes, posing a potential threat to aquatic life and possibly human life.
As an emerging field of study, not a lot is known about microplastics or microbeads and their impacts yet on nature and our drinking water. The NOAA Marine Debris Program is leading efforts within NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to research this topic as well as numerous universities around the world. Standardized field methods for collecting sediment, sand, and surface-water microplastic samples have been developed and continue to undergo testing. Eventually, field and laboratory protocols will allow for global comparisons of the amount of microplastics and microbeads released into the environment, which is the first step in determining the final distribution, impacts, and fate of this debris.
Microplastic contamination has been found in tap water in countries around the world including the United States & Canada, leading to calls from scientists for urgent research on the implications for health.
Microbeads are not a recent problem. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, plastic microbeads first appeared in personal care products about fifty years ago, with plastics increasingly replacing natural ingredients. As recently as 2012, this issue was still relatively unknown, with an abundance of products containing plastic microbeads on the market and not a lot of awareness on the part of consumers.
On December 28, 2015, President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, banning plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products.
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“We are increasingly smothering ecosystems in plastic and I am very worried that there may be all kinds of unintended, adverse consequences that we will only find out about once it is too late,”
--Prof Roland Geyer, University of California at Santa Barbara
In 2017, some 83% of tap water samples collected from over a dozen countries on five continents tested positive for microplastics, according to a study commissioned by data journalism outlet Orb. The specific rate of prevalence in different locales varied, but all tested locations, from Europe to Jakarta and Beirut saw plastic found in over 70% of tap water samples.
In the U.S., researchers found that 94% of all water samples, (including tap water from places like Trump Tower and the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters), were contaminated by microplastic.
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