Water Quality and the Global Microplastic Crisis

The use of plastic piping has become commonplace, yet there is mounting evidence that plastic is directly damaging water quality. Over the past few years, several third-party studies have made three conclusions: microplastic fragments are abundantly present in our water, humans are unknowingly consuming them, and they release toxins when consumed by fish or mammals.

What is a Microplastic?

Plastic used for water bottles, piping and any other application are not naturally occurring and never biodegrade. When exposed to water, the sun, wind and other elements, plastics break into smaller and smaller pieces. Eventually a plastic product is reduced to fragments as small as 0.1 – 5 millimeters.

How Prevalent is Plastic Contamination of Water?

Pollution resulting from this phenomena is widespread. A 2017 study tested tap water samples from 14 countries on five continents to assess microplastic prevalence. Of the 159 samples analyzed, 83 percent contained plastic with an average rate of 4.34 pieces of plastic per liter. In fact the United States had the worst contamination rate at 94 percent of water samples, including water from the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters. Just by drinking the recommended amount of water, an individual can ingest plastic 14 times each day.

What Effect Do They Have?

Studies conducted on fish and small mammals have shown microplastics absorb toxic chemicals linked to cancer and other ailments and release these substances when consumed. According to professor Richard Thompson at Plymouth University, “It became clear very early on that the plastic would release those chemicals and that actually, the conditions in the gut would facilitate really quite rapid release.” Although further research is needed, as humans consume these creatures, the potential for us to inherit their ailments is significant.

Unfortunately, it’s not just meat. Baby formula, pasta, soup, sauce, beer, salt and any food involving water likely also contains plastic. Microplastics are so small that after we eat our favorite food, they can migrate through the intestinal wall, enter the bloodstream and visit our heart, brain, and other organs. In a first-of-its-kind study in 2018, scientists examined individuals from eight countries and found every single person had microplastics in their body.

The most common type of plastic found was polypropylene (PP) at 62.8 percent, followed by detections of polyethylene (PE) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). All three of these plastics are common piping materials.

What Should We Do?

Builders, architects, contractors and property owners must carefully consider the material selection for piping installations. Pipe replacement projects to remove plastic may be part of the solution along with filters designed to remove microplastics.