UN: Microplastics in Water Not a Major Health Worry

'Just because we're ingesting them doesn't mean we have a risk to human health'
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 22, 2019 3:10 AM CDT
UN: Microplastics in Water 'Not a Human Health Risk'
A piece of microplastic found in an Atlantic herring.   (Ryan Jones /Jackson Hole News & Guide via AP)

The World Health Organization says the levels of microplastics in drinking water don't appear to be risky, but that research has been spotty and more is needed into their effects on the environment and health, the AP reports. Microplastics are created when man-made materials break down into tiny particles smaller than about 5 millimeters (roughly one-fifth of an inch), although there is no strict scientific definition. In a report published Wednesday, the United Nations health agency said the minuscule plastics are "ubiquitous in the environment" and have been found in drinking water, including both tap and bottled, most likely as the result of treatment and distribution systems. "But just because we're ingesting them doesn't mean we have a risk to human health," said Bruce Gordon, WHO's coordinator of water, sanitation, and hygiene.

"The main conclusion is, I think, if you are a consumer drinking bottled water or tap water, you shouldn't necessarily be concerned," said Gordon. He acknowledged, however, that the available data is "weak" and that more research is needed. He also urged broader efforts to reduce plastic pollution. The report is WHO's first review to investigate the potential human health risks of microplastics. It said people have inadvertently consumed microplastics and other particles in the environment for decades without sign of harm. Andrew Mayes, a senior lecturer in chemistry at Britain's University of East Anglia, agreed that microplastics in water don't appear to be a health worry for now, but warned that they could still be harming the environment. "We know that these types of materials cause stress to small organisms," he said. "They could be doing a lot of damage in unseen ways."

(More microplastics stories.)

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