Microplastics: Health threat or much ado about (virtually) nothing?


28 Mar 2018 --- The future of plastic packaging has become more than an industry debate – it is an international political issue, a focused area of academic research and a household conversation. In a world increasingly concerned by environmental sustainability, the visibility of plastic pollution in our streets and oceans has meant that plastics have come to symbolize humanity’s struggle to take better care of the planet.

But there is more to plastic pollution than what meets the eye. Landmark discoveries from New Orb Media have found potentially harmful plastic particles in the water bottles of 11 leading global brands, including Dasani (Coca-Cola), Epura (PepsiCo), Aqua (Danone) and Nestlé Pure Life and San Pellegrino (Nestlé). Exclusive testing was conducted on more than 250 bottles from nine different countries, with 93 percent found to have contained plastic debris the size of the width of a human hair, including polypropylene, nylon and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Microplastics – as they are known – are classified as less than 5mm in diameter by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In comparison to environmental issues, the human health concerns of microplastics in light of New Orb Media’s research are even less understood. Microplastics are entering our bodies via PET bottles – and most likely other forms of plastic packaging – but how these microplastics are entering food and beverage products is a contentious debate, and whether they are having an adverse effect on human health is currently unknown. Many of the major global health and environmental organizations, as well as large plastic suppliers and packagers, are unwilling, or unable, to take an official public stance until further research has been conducted.

New Orb Media’s research was conducted at the State University of New York, under the supervision of Dr. Sherri Mason, Chair of the Department of Geology and Environmental Sciences. World Health Organization (WHO) speaks with NutritionInsight about the findings:

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How microplastics are entering bottled products is currently
unknown, as are the associated health concerns

“We are aware of the study about microplastics in bottled water. Currently, there is no evidence of impacts to human health. For WHO to make an informed risk assessment, we would need to establish that microplastics occur in water at concentrations that would be harmful to human health. Information on occurrence in water is very limited and there is no information on the impact on human health.”

“While WHO continues to prioritize addressing known significant waterborne risks to health, we are aware that microplastics are an emerging area of concern for consumers and Member States. Thus WHO, as part of its continuous review of new evidence on water quality, will review the very scarce available evidence with the objective of identifying evidence gaps, and establishing a research agenda to inform a more thorough risk assessment.”

New Orb Media do not present their findings as comprehensive, but rather as a means of opening up the debate around microplastics. Molly Bingham, Orb Media CEO, speaks to NutritionInsight about the significance of the research: “Every single person in the world depends on water to live – we felt it was important to report on what was in bottled water brands.”

“While it is still unclear what the implications of ingesting microplastics are on human health, it is a conversation worth having and Orb Media welcomes more scientific research, dialogue and transparency on the issue.”

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Molly Bingham, Orb Media CEO: ”There are individuals who believe that the threat to  humanity
from microplastics in our environment is second only to that of climate change." Credit: Orb MediaCaption

Danone – owners of the Aqua brand – responded by vocalizing skepticism around the validity of the research: “To date, there is no applicable regulatory framework or scientific consensus with respect to the adequate testing methodology or potential impacts of microplastic particles which could be found in any bottling environment.”

“Concerning the study sent to us by Orb Media: Danone Waters is not in a position to comment as some aspects of the testing methodology used remain unclear and there are no details regarding the statistical significance versus the blank value.”

“In general, there is still limited data on the topic and conclusions differ dramatically from one study to another. For example, a recent scientific study published in the peer-reviewed journal Water Research in February 2018 (Schymanski et al.) concluded that no statistically relevant amount of microplastic can be found in water in single-use plastic bottles.”

The concerns around the validity of the research have been shared by a number of organizations. The UK Natural Hydration Council stressed that, “The Orb Media report has not been independently evaluated by scientific peer review and needs further investigation.” This is a view shared by both the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) and PetCore.

The BBC – who collaborated with New Orb Media on the research – contacted industry experts for comments on the validity of the experiment. Dr. Andrew Mayes, University of East Anglia, and one of the pioneers of the Nile Red technique claimed "very high-quality analytical chemistry" had been used, and that the results were "quite conservative."

Susan Selke, Director of the School of Packaging at Michigan State University, US, provides another academic perspective. While failing to dismiss the validity of the research, she did raise some questions: “How were samples prepared? Were appropriate controls used? Was statistical analysis conducted and were differences found to be statistically significant? Plastic particles were also found by New Orb in both tap water and water bottled in glass. Peer review is an indicator of quality, but not a guarantee; similarly, lack of peer review puts up a caution flag, but does not necessarily mean that there are flaws in the study.”

Major plastics supplier, Amcor, also spoke to NutritionInsight about the study, commenting that, “It’s too early to conclude that the source of micro-particles is associated with bottled water specifically, especially when the study didn’t look beyond bottled water to establish a base for comparison.”

Interestingly, Amcor also stated that, “Microplastics enter the environment from numerous sources – from the paint used for road-marking to the washing of the clothes we wear.”

This is representative of a key area of the debate, which is how exactly the microplastics are reportedly entering water products. Given the amount of polypropylene in bottle caps, it has been widely suggested that the act of opening a bottle may shed particles into the liquid. When questioned, major plastic suppliers were not keen to speculate on this issue, until more conclusive research has been conducted.

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World first: Ekoplaza's plastic-free aisle in Amsterdam

Gerolsteiner –one of the 11 companies tested by New Orb Media – did mention that “the possibility of microplastics entering the product from ambient air or packaging materials during the bottling process cannot be completely ruled out.”

Ultimately, the issues, or non-issues, which are yet to be fully explored with regard to microplastics are another cause for concern for an industry taking steps to promote the benefits of the material, particularly PET which, as Susan Selke highlights, “has recyclability qualities.”

“Additionally, it is less prone to “pick up” contaminating substances than plastics such as polyethylene. It has a good mass/performance profile, and can maintain performance through a number of use cycles. It is also possible to “upgrade” recycled PET, restoring its performance to near-virgin levels.

“We need to be able to deliver packaged water to those who do not have access to clean water from other sources. PET and HDPE are the obvious choices for this task. Non-plastic containers are very likely to have greater environmental impacts (from production, transportation, etc.) as well as being more costly.”

The packaging industry as a whole is working to promote the benefits of plastics, especially in light of recent big news stories. Just recently, UK Chancellor, Philip Hammond, called for a tax consultation over single-use plastics, while Amsterdam supermarket chain, Ekoplaza, opened the world’s first plastic-free aisle in what is regarded as a major victory for environmental campaigners.

Industry initiatives to “lightweight” plastic packaging, support recycling in line with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s “circular plastic economy” approach, or find alternatives in biodegradable packaging are now commonplace. Still levels of plastic pollution continue to increase – the World Economic Forum estimates that at the current rate, plastic will outweigh fish in our oceans by 2050.

The plastics challenge is ongoing, but evolving towards a more positive future in which initiatives to tackle, and to understand, plastic pollution are more widespread and active. The microplastics debate is still in its infancy, but New Orb Media’s research may be the spark that is needed to ignite a serious global debate. The industry will be eagerly anticipating further research into microplastics – both how they are entering consumer products and what the health issues may be.

By Joshua Poole

This feature is provided by NutritionInsight's sister website, PackagingInsights.

To contact our editorial team please email us at editorial@cnsmedia.com