After reading this recent article about microplastics in our water supply, we wanted to dig a little deeper in order to understand the true effects of microplastics in our tap water. We reached out to Dr. Sherri Mason, a microplastic expert at the State University of New York in Fredonia who supervised the analyses, and asked if she would be interested in answering a few questions. Below is a Q&A with Dr. Mason that gives you a bit more insight into why you should be alarmed with these findings.
Microplastics in Your Water- An Interview with a microplastics expert
Q: Samples taken from U.S. Tap water showed that 94% had measurable levels of plastic particles in them. Are you even surprised at how high that number is?
A: Yes, I really thought with our water treatment infrastructure this number would be lower.
Q: On a scale of 1-10, how concerned should people be about this?
A: 10 being the most scared.... I would say an 8. Reality is climate change is the dominant environmental threat facing us, but second only to that is the proliferation of synthetic chemicals, which includes plastic.
Q: How large are these pieces of plastic that we are talking about? What would the closest comparison be?
A: All fibers were <5mm. Closest comparison would be a piece of glitter or sand or salt.
Q: What was it that triggered your interest to conduct a study like this? Was it always a curiosity or was there some information or event that inspired you to do the research?
A: I moved from Montana to Fredonia, which is along Lake Erie, in 2001 for a teaching job at SUNY. When I was given the position, my primary responsibility was teaching physical chemistry, but they also had me teach a non-major consumer chemistry class. Since I have been interested in environmental chemistry since the age of 12—I got into chemistry because of acid rain—the course became about not just the chemistry of things like shampoo and reworks but also about environmentally-related topics like genetically modified foods, consumer waste, and climate change. This was 2001, right around the time of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch discovery. So I started teaching about plastic pollution in that course. It is a great mechanism to get students interested in science because they know plastic.
When I took over the environmental sciences program in 2006, I started running the program differently. In 2010, we were contacted by the US Brig Niagara about teaching a class aboard the ship. It is an environmental methods class that teaches the students about the Great Lakes and how we monitor the lakes while living on this really cool boat. As soon as I heard about it, as much as I was excited for the students, I thought, “I want to go.” I have always loved chemistry. It is definitely where my heart is, but it has always been about chemistry in the environment. To teach students who usually struggle with chemistry but are really interested in the environmental side of things was very nice.
At that point, I was doing atmospheric stuff. I came on board to talk about deposition in the Great Lakes because that is the primary way that many contaminants get into the lakes. I spent a week just sailing, and that was the first time I had ever been on the lakes. What that course did for me is exactly what we were hoping it would do for the students—I realized how beautiful the lakes are. They are just amazing.
Living along the shores of Lake Erie, with all the dead fish and algae, you really don’t get an appreciation for how beautiful the lakes are until you get out on them. It was out on the lakes that I started thinking, “I wonder if there is plastic in the water.” I guess that is how science happens, right? You get a question that at the time seems like just a normal question. It started off as just a fun project to do with the students—“Let’s drag a net through the water and see if we can catch any plastic.”
Q: Is there any way for the people at home to tell if they have plastic fragments in their water? Or is it only observable in a laboratory setting with specialized equipment?
A: They are too small to be easily seen and are obscured by the different optics of water vs air. Given the prominence in our study, I would say it's safe to assume that it's in your water.
"I would say it's safe to assume that it's in your water."
Q: The National Academy of Medicine recommends that men drink about 3 liters of water per day and that women drink about 2.2 liters per day. If people in the U.S. follow those recommendations, is there any way to estimate how many plastic particles they will be ingesting?
A: From our manuscript just submitted for peer-review: "To add context to our results, according to the National Academy of Medicine, women and men should consume 2.2 L and 3 L of beverage per day, respectively. If these beverages consist of tap water, or drinks derived from tap water (such as coffee, tea, or reconstituted juice), a woman may consume as many as 12 anthropogenic particles a day, while a man could consume up to sixteen. These daily doses add up to an annual total of nearly 4,400 particles for women and over 5,800 particles for men. These anthropogenic particle counts are in addition to those potentially consumed in other products, such as beer, sea salt and seafood."
If these beverages consist of tap water, or drinks derived from tap water (such as coffee, tea, or reconstituted juice), a woman may consume as many as 12 anthropogenic particles a day, while a man could consume up to sixteen.
Q: Your study was really the first of its kind to bring media attention to this subject, what’s the next step? What will you be studying next?
A: We're starting a more extensive bottled water study with ORB Media, as well as completing a zooplankton feeding study. And I am trying to write up results from other studies that have been (recently) completed.
Q: In your study, you mentioned that these plastics can both absorb other toxic things like PCB’s and Bacteria as well as leach phthalates and BPA (a known endocrine disruptor). It sounds like it’s not only the plastic particles themselves we need to be concerned about. Are you equally worried about the potential effects these can have?
A: Personally, as a chemist, I am more worried about the chemicals within and adsorbed onto the plastics as compared to the plastics themselves. We know these chemicals are in the water and in our bodies, and we know the impact they are having. What we don't know is HOW they are getting into us. I think plastics provide one type of vector and an unnecessary one at that.
Q: If you could only get the general public to know just one thing about plastics in the water, what would it be?
A: Every piece of plastic we find comes from us. That means that we are the problem, which means we are also the solution. If we don't use plastics, we won't find them in our environment, in our water, in our food, and ultimately in ourselves.
Climate change is the dominant environmental threat facing us, but the proliferation of synthetic chemicals, which includes plastic, is a close second.
Microplastic particles are less than 5mm in size – the closest comparison would be the size of a piece of glitter or sand or salt.
According to the study supervised by Dr. Sherri Mason, 94% of water samples taken from the U.S. had measurable levels of plastic particles in them.
Microplastics are too small to be easily seen, but based on the study, it's safe to assume that it's in your water.
On average, women consume an annual total of nearly 4,400 particles and men consume an annual total of over 5,800 particles.