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Over 240,000 cancer-causing nanoplastics found in bottled water

A new study has unveiled a startling truth about bottled water: it can contain hundreds of thousands of nanoplastics, a number that far exceeds previous estimates.

For the investigation, researchers at Columbia Climate School used a novel microscopic technique focused on nanoplastics, which is a largely unexplored domain.

These tiny particles, the offspring of microplastics, pose potential threats to human health and ecosystems, as they can infiltrate blood, cells, and even the brain.

The realm of nanoplastics

For years, microplastics — particles formed from the breakdown of larger plastics — have been a growing concern. They have been found in diverse environments ranging from Arctic ice to everyday items like drinking water and food. 

However, the focus has now shifted to bottled water, which was already known to contain thousands of microplastic fragments.

Nanoplastic comprises ever smaller fragments derived from microplastics. The Columbia team counted and identified these nanoplastics in bottled water, discovering an average of 240,000 fragments per liter — a number 10 to 100 times greater than earlier estimates.

Nanoplastics, unlike their larger counterparts, can bypass the intestines and lungs, entering the bloodstream directly. From there, they can travel to various organs, including the heart and brain.

Their ability to invade individual cells and cross the placenta raises significant concerns about their impact on human health.

Finding nanoplastics in bottled water

The new detection technique used for the study, stimulated Raman scattering microscopy, was co-invented by study co-author Wei Min.

This method allows for precise identification of nanoparticles and provides a clearer understanding of what these particles are and their potential toxicity.

Study co-author Beizhan Yan, an environmental chemist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, highlighted the novelty of this research. 

“Previously this was just a dark area, uncharted. Toxicity studies were just guessing what’s in there,” said Yan. “This opens a window where we can look into a world that was not exposed to us before.”

Globally, plastic production is approaching 400 million metric tons annually, with over 30 million tons discarded into water bodies or landfills.

Unlike organic matter, plastics do not degrade into harmless substances. Instead, they continue to break down into smaller particles, potentially down to the molecular level. 

Alarming discovery 

Nanoplastics are defined as particles smaller than one micrometer, measured in billionths of a meter. This is significantly smaller than microplastics. 

The discovery of these nanoplastics in bottled water is particularly alarming, considering their potential for biological interaction.

The issue of plastics in bottled water came to the forefront following a 2018 study that detected 325 particles per liter. However, this new research suggests that the actual number could be exponentially higher. 

The challenge has been in detecting particles smaller than one micrometer, which marks the boundary of the nano world.

Identifying nanoplastics

Study lead author Naixin Qian, a Columbia graduate student in Chemistry, explained the limitations of previous studies in identifying nanoplastics.

“People developed methods to see nanoparticles, but they didn’t know what they were looking at,” said Qian. She noted that previous studies could provide bulk estimates of nano mass, but for the most part could not count individual particles, nor identify which were plastics or something else.

The new technique allows for not only detecting these particles but also identifying their composition. This understanding is crucial for assessing the potential health risks posed by different types of plastics.

In their analysis, the researchers found that polyethylene terephthalate (PET), commonly used in water bottles, was not the most abundant plastic. 

Instead, polyamide, a type of nylon likely originating from water purification processes, was more prevalent. This indicates that even processes meant to purify water may contribute to the problem.

Bottled water, nanoplastics, and future research

An intriguing aspect of the study was the discovery that the seven types of plastics identified accounted for only about 10% of all the nanoparticles found.

This means that a vast array of unknown particles are present in bottled water, emphasizing the complexity of this issue.

The team is expanding their research beyond bottled water to include tap water and other sources of potential nanoplastic contamination. 

Collaborative efforts are underway to study nanoplastics in different environments, including Antarctic snow and human tissues, to better understand their ecological and health impacts.

“There is a huge world of nanoplastics to be studied,” said Min. He noted that by mass, nanoplastics comprise far less than microplastics, but “it’s not size that matters. It’s the numbers, because the smaller things are, the more easily they can get inside us.”

More about nanoplastics

As discussed above, nanoplastics are minuscule fragments of plastic, much smaller than microplastics, often measuring less than 100 nanometers in size.

Despite their tiny dimensions, these particles pose a significant environmental threat due to their widespread presence and potential to harm ecosystems and human health.

Origins of nanoplastics

The origin of nanoplastics primarily lies in the breakdown of larger plastic debris. Over time, factors such as sunlight, physical abrasion, and biological degradation reduce these larger pieces into increasingly smaller fragments.

Additionally, nanoplastics can originate from consumer products like cosmetics and industrial processes.

Once in the environment, nanoplastics present unique challenges. Their small size allows them to evade filtration systems and disperse widely in water bodies and soils.

This widespread distribution raises concerns about their accumulation in the food chain, as they can be ingested by a wide range of organisms, from plankton to larger animals.

Impact on organisms and human health

The impact of nanoplastics on living organisms is a topic of ongoing research. Studies suggest that these particles can cause physical and chemical harm.

Physically, they can clog the digestive systems of aquatic animals and reduce nutrient absorption.

Chemically, nanoplastics may release toxic additives or adsorb harmful pollutants from their surroundings, introducing these substances into organisms that ingest them.

For human health, the implications are equally concerning. Nanoplastics can potentially enter the human body through the consumption of contaminated food and water or inhalation. Once inside, they might cause inflammatory responses or release toxic substances.

Addressing the nanoplastic problem in bottled water

Addressing the nanoplastics issue requires a multifaceted approach. Reducing plastic waste at the source is crucial.

This reduction can be achieved through better waste management practices, promoting the use of biodegradable materials, and enhancing public awareness about the impact of plastic pollution.

Additionally, advancing filtration and remediation technologies to capture and remove nanoplastics from the environment is essential.

In summary, nanoplastics represent a growing environmental hazard. Understanding their behavior, impacts, and methods to mitigate their presence is vital for preserving ecosystems and safeguarding human health.

It’s a global challenge that demands immediate and sustained action from individuals, industries, and governments worldwide.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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