Microplastics in Drinking Water: a review and assessment of an emerging concern

WaterPlastic particles are ubiquitous contaminants in aquatic ecosystems from which drinking water for human consumption is produced. The VU’s  Dept. of Environment and Health research interests include the human exposure to plastic particles via various exposure routes, including consumption of drinking water.  A new review of microplastics in drinking water has been published in Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health.

The article concludes with the following key statements:
Exposure and hazard assessments of microplastics in drinking water will need to be improved before the full risks to human health can be properly understood and assessed. Exposure assessments would benefit from advances in quality assurance and quality checking (QA/QC) of sampling and analysis, the development of proficiency testing schemes and certified reference materials and from further analytical capacity to accurately detect and identify ultrafine plastic particles (i.e. in the nano-size range which is most bioavailable and likely to cause particle toxicity). Characterization of the types and magnitude of microplastics hazards requires an understanding of absorption, distribution and elimination of these particles, the mechanisms of toxic action, the dose-response relationship and of which human populations are at risk. Hazard data coupled with reliable real-world measured microplastics exposure concentrations that include both mass quantity and particle size information will ultimately enable risk characterization.

Microplastics  in drinking water represents one of many leakages of plastic debris from technical cycles into biological cycles worldwide. Strong regulatory action may be imperative to address environmental contamination problems of this nature. Furthermore, public tolerance for contaminants in drinking water is notoriously low and “nocebo” effects - actual adverse outcomes resulting from the perception of toxicants present  - can be expected for microplastics as much as for any other emerging contaminant in drinking water. Since plastic recycling cannot fully address the problem of microplastic emissions, a shift in focus from end-of-pipe solutions towards preventative measures is widely supported. Cleaner production and processes of the circular economy (e.g. reduce, redesign) can have multiple benefits over end-of-pipe solutions. Cleaner production can be more easily coupled to profitable business models and long-term feasibility while raising public awareness of pertinent issues.

Dafne Eerkes-Medrano, Heather A. Leslie Brian Quinn (2018) Microplastics in drinking water: A review and assessment of an emerging concern. Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health

Contact at the VU Department of Environment and Health: Dr. Heather Leslie