According to theBBC, the World Health Organization is launching an investigation into the potential risks of consuming plastics that contaminate drinking water after a report fromOrb Mediafound that bottles of drinking water were contaminated with particles of plastic. Theirstudyincluded 250 bottles across 11 brands bought in nine countries. Tests were carried out at the State University of New York in Fredonia using a process that involved dropping a dye called Nile Red into bottles which binds to free-floating plastic and under specific light are identifiable by site. Researchers found an average of 10 visible particles per liter of bottle but even smaller pieces not visible to the naked eye were later identified; an average of 314 per liter. Some of these pieces are so small, they can pass across the lining of the gastrointestinal tract to get carried throughout the body. Only 17 of the 250 bottles tested were found to be free of contamination. The authors of the study say the contamination may come from the packaging itself, when the user unscrews the cap or during the bottling process.

Now that this study confirms extensive human exposure to microplastics from drinking water, not to mention the contaminated food and tap water confirmed in previous studies, the priority is to understand how this consumption of microplastics affects the body. Dr. Stephanie Wright of the King’s College Centre for Environment and Health tells the BBC, “The particles could stay within an immune cell in the gut lining, or be passed into our lymphatic system ending up in the lymph nodes, or there is a small potential for them to enter the blood stream and possibly accumulate in the liver. These are foreign hard particles which our body will obviously want to get rid of but it can’t because plastic is not degradable so that will cause harm to the local tissue.”

The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) along with Coco-Cola, Pepsico, Danone and Nestle havefired back, challenging the validity of the study and taking the authors to task for unnecessarily scaring consumers. For one, says IBWA, the particles described as plastic by Orb are not confirmed spectroscopically to be microplastics. In an effort to deflect fear of drinking bottled water by consumers, the trade group also cites the presence of microplastics in the environment and use of plastics by other companies in the food industry as well as the fact that there is no scientific consensus about the impact of microplastics on human health.

Updated 3/19/2018, 3:13 PM