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Exploradio brings you captivating stories about science worth discovering and examines powerful questions worth answering.

Exploradio: Microplastics Are Everywhere, Including the Water We Drink

Our use of plastics has skyrocketed in recent decades, and plastic pollution is now endangering all of the world's ocean and freshwater ecosystems. Microplastics are also ending up inside our bodies with unknown health consequences.

Lake Erie has one of the highest concentrations of microplastic pollution in the world.

Sherri Mason, a researcher at Penn State Behrend in Erie, was the first to report that finding.

Her discovery led to congressional action banning microbeads in consumer products.

On this week’s Exploradio,  we spend some time with Mason finding out how microplastic pollution remains a health hazard.

Back in 2012, Sherri Mason, wasn’t sure what she’d find trawling Lake Erie with a large, fine-mesh net…

“We went into our studies thinking we’d be catching bigger plastic items, bags, bottles, Styrofoam containers, plastic straws…things like that, and instead the vast majority of what we found was microplastics, pieces smaller than five millimeters, and most of it around one millimeter, or the size of a grain of sand floating in the water, very easily ingested by organisms living in the water.

Public outcry from her discoveries led Congress to pass the Microbeads-Free Water Act.

Sherri Mason holding her sampling net
Sherri Mason holding her manta-trawl sampling net aboard the EPA research vessel Lake Guardian in 2014. Her work discovering microplastic pollution in Lake Erie helped lead to the 2015 ban on microbeads in most consumer products.

"It banned microbeads from these wash-off personal care products, effective nationwide July 2018. That legislation has also been picked up by the United Kingdom, Canada, and is being considered in other international locations as well.”

Mason has now taken on a new project, analyzing the water we drink.

Testing tap water for microplastics
She began with testing tap water for tiny pieces of plastic. 

Here’s what she found. 

“93% of the samples that we collected here in the United States had micro plastic in them and most of those were fibers, like from our clothes.  These are quickly becoming the dominant type of micro plastics. We find it in the air, in the soil, and we find it in our water, including our tap water."

“They're just everywhere, so as soon as that water comes in contact with air  you're going to end up with fibers in it,” says Mason.

What about bottled water?
Mason says that when her tap water study was looked at, people were shocked by the findings, "but their response was, 'well, then I'll just drink more bottled water.'”

What we can do to combat plastics pollution.

Mason then did a global assessment looking at 11 brands of bottled water.  She found 93% of them also contained microplastics

“But was what was really interesting in this study was the fact that in the tap water, it was all fibers, but in the bottled water, it was mostly fragments, and specifically polypropylene and then polyethylene terephthalate, which are the plastics that are used to manufacture the bottle and the bottle cap."

"And 4% of our plastics actually had industrial lubricants on them. So it's the actual act of bottling the water that's contributing most of the plastic to that water," says Mason.

How much plastic are we drinking?
Mason says that on average she found 325 pieces of plastic per liter of bottled water.

"And in the United States, most of our bottles of water are 500 milliliters, so half of that, or around 175 -180 pieces of plastic in every bottle of water that you would be drinking.”

She says the vast majority of them are microscopic…

chart of plastics production

“And I know that people are like, ‘Oh, well, if it's small, and I can't see it, then what's the matter?’ And it’s actually the smaller the plastic is, the greater the potential for harm. Because when a particle gets smaller than 100 microns, which is the width of a human hair, it can actually make its way across your gastrointestinal tract into your bloodstream.”

She says those microplastics can then be carried in your blood, "and end-up in organs like your kidney and your liver. And even actually, if it's small enough, it can make its way into your brain.”

Mason says we don't fully understand the impact of these ingested microplastics.

picture of researcher sherri mason
Sherri Mason presented her work recently at the Kent Free Library.

“Science happens very slowly," says Mason. "So there are studies where they've looked at how does plastic affect a liver cell, you know, and it induces oxidative stress,” which includes inflammation and responses from the immune system.

Mason feels the evidence that is emerging is that the effects are unlikely to be completely benign.

The jury is still out on how dangerous the consumption of microplastics is to human health, according to a recent study by the World Health Organization. But the group acknowledges that assessment is based on limited evidence.

Jeff is your average chemist turned radio host and reporter. He currently hosts middays on WKSU and has reported extensively on science, politics, business, and the environment.