The water we rely on is being clogged fast by prescription drug waste, chemicals used in agriculture and industry, and micro-plastics, and it is seeping into the public water chain to threaten human health and wellbeing.
by David Noble
It is never nice to imagine the unimaginable. Yet scientific evidence is mounting of a potential global human health epidemic due to the vast amounts of pharmaceuticals and other waste ranging from pesticides to micro plastics in our oceans, rivers and lakes now entering our water and food systems.
At a recent European Geosciences gathering in Vienna, scientists were warned that if present trends continue hazardous levels of pharmaceuticals would threaten a large part of the ‘freshwater ecosystem’ before 2050. That warning has been echoed by one medical expert on human hormones, Portugal’s Dr. Ivone Mirpuri, who believes that the thousands of chemical found in plastics are accumulating in nature and disrupting human hormones to such a level that humankind faces extinction within 200 years unless steps are taken to reduce the use of plastics.
In a recent white paper published together with Bluewater, a global water purification technology and solutions company, Dr. Mirpuri recounts her 35 year medical career, where she has witnessed growing numbers of fertility-related and abnormal physical development cases. She attributes this trend to growing human exposure to chemical contaminants that are impacting hormone health, resulting in rising infertility rates, early menses and menopause, obesity and sexual dysfunction.
Hormones control every function of the body, from blood pressure to mood. A study published in the Endocrine Society's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism in 2016 noted that there are more than 85,000 manufactured chemicals, of which thousands may be endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) such as bisphenol A (BPA) that have been linked in hundreds of studies to health issues such as infertility, obesity, diabetes, neurological problems and hormone-related cancers.
The European chemicals agency (ECHA) voted unanimously that BPA was an ‘endocrine disruptor’ and linked it to a range of hormone-twisting health effects from autism to diabetes. Further food for thought is the research indicating that 9 out of 10 Americans have BPA in their blood.
EDCs, which are found in non-stick cookware to the plastic wrapped food we eat as well as in both tap and bottled water, have been dubbed the ‘No 1 threat to humankind’ by Dr. Mirpuri due to the numerous ways humans are exposed to the chemicals. The sad, yet harsh reality is that our planet, and its soils, rivers and oceans that supply the food and water human existence depends upon, is increasingly being fouled by synthetic plastics and many of the chemicals in them.
The United Nations (UN) estimates that over 13 million tonnes of plastic litter yearly ends up in our oceans. In the UK alone, just 45 percent of the country’s recyclable plastic waste is actually being recycled, with the rest ending up in landfills or the ocean. But the plastic waste problem is not confined to what is being thrown into the sea.
The UN warns that while the plastic in the world’s oceans has garnered massive media attention, plastic pollution ‘arguably poses a bigger threat to the plants and animals – including humans – who are based on land.’
Underlining that little of the plastic discarded every day is recycled or incinerated in waste-to-energy facilities, the UN states that much is ending up in landfills, taking up to 1,000 years to decompose, and continually leaching potentially toxic substances into the soil and water.
The problem with plastic is the chemical additives used in its production. In many plastic products, added fillers and chemicals comprise more than 80 percent of the overall weight and can include flame retardants (e.g. power cords). The problems associated with plastic as it breaks down into micro- and nano plastic particles stretch beyond eyesore pollution on beaches, roadsides and the large islands of waste like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the most extensive collection of floating plastic in the world enveloping 1.6 million square kilometers.
German researchers from the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB) estimate terrestrial microplastic pollution is 4 to 23 times higher than marine microplastic pollution. Saying around one-third of all plastic waste ends up in soils or freshwater, the German study also warns this pollution may cause long-term problems to terrestrial ecosystems throughout the world, especially as it breaks down further into nanoparticles (less than 0.1 micrometers in size), that can enter internal organs and the bloodstream.
Microplastics are pervasive in the extreme. Tiny pieces of plastic resulting from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste, microplastics swirl about in every sea around the planet. Microplastics show up in the fish and shellfish we eat, in sea salt, in the food-growing soil, and in both tap water and bottled water.
A study by a research team at US lobbying group Orb Media found ‘a single bottle can hold dozens or possibly even thousands of microscopic plastic particles.’ Tests by Orb Media on more than 250 bottles from 11 brands reveal contamination by plastics such as polypropylene, nylon, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
Worryingly, the UN has also flagged that when plastic particles break down ‘they gain new physical and chemical properties, increasing the risk that they will have a toxic effect on organisms.’ The Leibnitz Institute concurs. It adds that while the long-term effects of such changes have not yet been sufficiently explored, studies on fish have revealed ’that when passing the blood-brain barrier nanoplastics have a behavior-changing effect.’
Like Dr. Mirpuri, UN environment chief Erik Solheim has not minced his words on the threat posed by microplastics. He says the planet ‘is on the edge of a global plastic calamity’ unless plastics consumption is cut.
Solheim’s dire warning is heightened by the reality that while municipal water treatment processes are able to remove the likes of suspended solids, bacteria, and organic and inorganic contaminants, they are not 100 percent efficient at removing all contaminants. Nor can they guarantee the reliability of the water delivery infrastructure in keeping pollutants out of the water that are being pumped to homes and businesses many kilometers away from the water plant. One study in the US found 316 contaminants, including industrial solvents, weed killers, refrigerants and the rocket fuel component perchlorate, in the tap water.
So can people protect themselves? The good news is that humans are not completely at the mercy of contaminated residential or commercial water, point-of-use purification technology solutions are available. Bluewater, for example, provides highly compact point-of-use water purifiers harnessing patented second-generation reverse osmosis technology to remove pharmaceutical residues, microplastic particles and other contaminants from drinking and washing water.
David Noble is the communications director at Bluewater.