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Microplastics in bottled water: What you need to know

Written by Staff Writer

Is Bottled Water Really The Healthy Choice?

With all the concern about contaminated drinking water, it’s perhaps not surprising that even more Americans are turning to bottled water. The perceived safety of bottled water, however, is little more than good marketing. The clear bottles plastered with images of fresh mountain rivers, waterfalls, and water droplets imply a clean, natural product. The message is that bottled water is “pure,” which makes you feel good about stocking bottled water in your fridge for you and your family.

You know that bottled water contributes plastic to landfills, and you might also know that the vast majority of bottled water doesn’t actually get recycled. However, bottled water also isn’t the pure health icon the bottled water brands want you to believe it is. Inside a water bottle, you can find toxins, microplastics, and—ultimately—an untested beverage that doesn’t deserve its price tag.

What’s Actually in That Bottle?

Bottled water isn’t as pure as the industries want you to believe. One recent test on bottled water quality done by researchers at State University of New York at Fredonia tested 259 individual bottles of water, representing 11 different brands of bottled water. Inside those bottles, it wasn’t just water they found: 93 percent of the tested bottles exhibited signs of microplastic contamination.

Microplastics are becoming an increasing concern. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), microplastics are defined as pieces of plastic smaller than five millimeters long—about the size of a sesame seed. Plastic of all sizes poses a threat to the ecosystems because they take decades to fully break down, so littered plastic can build up. In fact, it’s the most prevalent type of debris in the Great Lakes and the oceans, according to NOAA.

The tiny size of microplastics gives them a unique health risk. As plastics break down into smaller and smaller particles, they become easier to be digested, and they can even pass beyond the digestive tract to contaminate the bodies of humans and animals. Researchers have long known that microplastic contamination is rampant in seafood, but now they’re realizing it’s becoming a concern for humans, who consume fish or drink microplastic-contaminated bottled water.

Here’s the problem: Plastic contains toxic additives like phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE). BPA, for example, has been linked to defects of the brain and prostate gland of fetuses and infants, and it may cause early puberty in girls, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). Here’s what’s scary about that: BPA is found in detectable levels in 93 percent of Americans six years and older, reports the NIEHS.

And it’s not just microplastics: In 2008, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested different brands of bottled water, finding 38 different pollutants in 10 bottled water brands. These pollutants included bizarre things like disinfection byproducts, fertilizer residue, and pain medication. These kinds of toxins are not the “pure” beverage that bottled water companies want you to purchase (yes, even the glass bottled waters).

Bottled Water vs. Filtered Tap Water

Bottled water might look clear, but the truth about bottled water quality is cloudy—and the industry wants to keep it that way. While tap water is tested yearly, and the results are shared for the public in order to empower consumers to make informed decisions, bottled water brands are not required and are not willing to publish proof of their alleged purity. In fact, the EWG study found that two of the tested bottled waters were indistinguishable from standard municipal water treatment. In other words, buying some types of bottled water means paying a hefty price just for them to put your tap water into a plastic bottle.

If you want to avoid some of the chemicals used in municipal water treatment, you might feel like bottled water is your only choice. You have an alternative, however, which can protect you from toxin and microplastic contamination, save you money, and reduce your waste: a water filter.

Water filters take your ultra cheap tap water and filter out the things you don’t want to drink. No filter eliminates every possible toxin, so it’s important to research your town’s tap water and find which water filter is appropriate for your home, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Plus, filtering your tap water can significantly cut down on use of plastic, reducing the amount of plastic and microplastic that ends up in landfills and waterways.

For safer, cleaner water, there’s no need to carve out room in your weekly shopping budget for bottled water. Invest in a filter for your tap water, and it will practically pay for itself.