Bottled danger?

Bottled danger?

A recent US study validated previous research that every time people drink water from a plastic bottle, they are also drinking very small bits of plastic along with it. As a follow up to a 2018 study, which found about 300 particles of “nano plastics” in every liter of bottled water, the new research indicates that the number could go as high as 370,000 particles if not more.

The new findings, by researchers from Columbia University, were aided by their use of a new technology that allowed them to better analyze contents of plastic bottled water, including those that could not be seen by microscope. The new study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and was reported by CNN.

A previous study in 2018 covered 11 brands sold in nine countries and found that each “tainted liter of water” had an average of 10 plastic particles wider than a human hair, along with 300 smaller particles. But the new research now shows that plastic bits in three popular brands of bottled water sold in the US were actually “between 110,000 and 370,000, if not higher.”

In 2018, the most common type of plastic fragment found in bottled water was polypropylene, which is used to make bottle caps. The bottles examined then were from the US, China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Lebanon, Kenya, and Thailand. Of the 259 bottles examined, only 17 bottles were reportedly free of plastic.

In my opinion, nano plastic in bottled water is like carcinogens in cigarettes and processed foods that can cause cancer. While the public is warned graphically about the dangers of cigarette smoking, processed food packaging does not carry similar warnings. Moving forward, should plastic-bottled water and beverages also carry health warnings regarding consuming hundreds of thousands of plastic particles in every liter?

CNN’s Sandee LaMotte reported, “at 1,000th the average width of a human hair, nano plastics are so teeny they can migrate through the tissues of the digestive tract or lungs into the bloodstream, distributing potentially harmful synthetic chemicals throughout the body and into cells.” Quoting the new study, she added, “one liter of water — the equivalent of two standard-size bottled waters — contained an average of 240,000 plastic particles from seven types of plastics, of which 90% were identified as nano plastics and the rest were microplastics.”

Talking to Sherri “Sam” Mason, director of sustainability at Penn State Behrend in Erie, Pennsylvania, LaMotte quoted her as saying, “People don’t think of plastics as shedding but they do… In almost the same way we’re constantly shedding skin cells, plastics are constantly shedding little bits that break off, such as when you open that plastic container for your store-bought salad or a cheese that’s wrapped in plastic.”

As early as five years ago, in 2018, scientists were already warning that people were also drinking nano plastic when they drank water from plastic bottles. Research findings “suggest widespread human exposures to minuscule plastic particles posing largely unstudied risks,” claimed Jane Houlihan, research director for Healthy Babies, Bright Futures, an alliance of nonprofits, scientists, and donors committed to reducing babies’ exposures to neurotoxic chemicals. In an e-mail to CNN, she added, “Infants and young children may face the greatest risks, as their developing brains and bodies are often more vulnerable to impacts from toxic exposures.”

In response to the recent research findings, a spokesperson for the International Bottled Water Association e-mailed CNN’s LaMotte that the new method of analyzing nano plastics in bottled water “needs to be fully reviewed by the scientific community and more research needs to be done to develop standardized methods for measuring and quantifying nano plastics in our environment.”

The spokesperson added, “There currently is both a lack of standardized methods and no scientific consensus on the potential health impacts of nano- and microplastic particles. Therefore, media reports about these particles in drinking water do nothing more than unnecessarily scare consumers.”

It is easy enough for water bottling companies to claim that their products are safe for human consumption. After all, I do not think there are enough studies out there to indicate otherwise. However, common sense dictates that plastic particles, no matter how small, have no place in the human body. It is then safe to assume that “consuming” plastic, intended or otherwise, and in any amount, can pose harm.

The challenge, I believe, is to now prove or disprove that nano plastic consumption is indeed a danger to people. Citing experts, CNN reported that “nano plastics are the most worrisome type of plastic pollution for human health… because the minuscule particles can invade individual cells and tissues in major organs, potentially interrupting cellular processes and depositing endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as bisphenols, phthalates, flame retardants, per- and polyfluorinated substances, or PFAS, and heavy metals.”

Added Penn State’s Mason, “All of those chemicals are used in the manufacturing of plastic, so if a plastic makes its way into us, it’s carrying those chemicals with it. And because the temperature of the body is higher than the outside, those chemicals are going to migrate out of that plastic and end up in our body… The chemicals can be carried to your liver and your kidney and your brain and even make their way across the placental boundary and end up in an unborn child.”

Obviously, before any definitive conclusions can be made, more studies are needed. For one, nano plastics may be coming from the source water itself, and not from the bottle. So, any water from a tainted source will already be tainted when bottled. That said, this can also mean that tap water is not necessarily safer. More importantly, we need to determine the actual effect of nano plastic consumption on the human body.

As early as 2017, San Miguel Corp. already decided to end its bottled water business under the “Purewater” brand, supposedly to reduce the company’s impact on the environment. “The plastic bottled water business has given us good returns, but we are choosing to forego it in favor of our long-term sustainability goals,” SMC President Ramon S. Ang said at the time.

But he also said that “Purewater” would live on, “not as a plastic water bottle business but through SMC’s investment in filtration technology that will be deployed during calamities to make safe drinking water available to displaced and affected families in lieu of environmentally unsustainable bottled water.”

As I noted in a column back then, for sure there was more to the SMC decision in 2017 than just sustainability issues. But with recent research findings suggesting the possibility of bottled water doing more harm than good to people, maybe San Miguel made the right decision after all. It was on the right track. I wonder if other water bottlers using plastic packaging can make a similar move.


Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council