Plastic particles in bottled water — ubiquitous or dangerous?
According to a report from Orb Media, a nonprofit digital journalism organization based in Washington, D.C., 93% of 259 bottles of branded water it tested contained microscopic pieces of plastic. The water came from 11 different brands — including Aquafina (PepsiCo), Dasani (Coke), Evian (Danone), Nestle Pure Life and San Pellegrino (Nestle) — and was purchased in 19 locations in 9 countries.
The highest level found was more than 10,000 particles per liter, while the lowest was zero. The average across all brands was 325 microplastic particles per liter. The report stated that the plastic particles contained polypropylene, nylon, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
Nestle, The Coca-Coca Company and other bottled water manufacturers responded by noting that microplastics are common in the environment and that their filtering and testing protocols are designed to assure the safety of their products. Following the Orb Media report, the World Health Organization told the BBC that it planned to assess the current level of research and review how much of a threat microplastics pose to public health.
The study found a wide range of microscopic plastic particle levels across brands — and even varying levels within brands — which makes it hard to gauge the severity of these findings. The report noted that most ingested microparticles, depending on size, could pass through the intestines and not cause problems, but that some could possibly migrate to the lymphatic system. It added that little research has been done in this area and that some scientists view that factor as cause for concern.
Bottled water manufacturers have a lot to lose if their products are seen as being contaminated with plastic, even if the particles are microscopic and relatively small in number. Bottled water is a $147-billion global industry and has been growing at about 9% per year, according to Zenith Global figures quoted by The Economist.
"We have some of the most stringent quality standards in the industry, and the water we use in our drinks is subject to multi-step filtration processes prior to production," Coca-Cola, which owns Dasani, said in a statement. "As Orb Media’s own reporting has shown, microscopic plastic fibers appear to be ubiquitous, and therefore may be found at minute levels even in highly treated products. We stand by the safety of our products, and welcome continued study of plastics in our environment."
Nestle said in a release that the safety and quality of its products was the company's priority, and claimed that all of its bottled waters are safe to drink.
"Over the past two years, we have tested a range of our products, including Nestlé Pure Life and S. Pellegrino, for the presence of microplastics," the Swiss food and beverage giant stated. "Systematic analysis is now part of our Yearly Monitoring Plan for all of our finished products, using state-of-the art devices and techniques for clearer identification of microplastic traces and to better determine their origin. To date, we have not found microplastics in our products beyond a trace level."
Water recently eclipsed other drinks as the most popular beverage in the U.S. According to a survey from the International Bottled Water Association, almost two-thirds of adults said that regular or sparkling bottled water products were their favorite drinks, with coffee and regular or diet soda in second and third place. Also, 94% said bottled water was a healthier option than soft drinks, and nearly as many thought it should be available anywhere beverages are sold.
It remains to be seen whether this report gains traction with health-conscious consumers and how negative that impact would be on this mammoth industry's sales. But until more research is done to determine whether the presence of microparticles in bottled water poses a human health threat, these products are likely to remain a popular and easily accessible beverage option around the world.