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Deakin University study indicates potentially harmful microplastics in drinking water

A new study from Deakin University indicates that microplastics could be affecting drinking water supplies.

Released in July, the research project suggested that plastics in waste streams are breaking down into microplastics and harming human health.

Co-Led by Dr Ludovic Dumée and a team at Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials, in conjunction with Surrey University in the UK, the project investigated nano and microplastics in water and wastewater treatment processes.

The team found that tiny pieces of plastic break down further during treatment processes – reducing the performance of treatment plants and impacting water quality.

Dumée said there had been a substantial amount of work on nano and microplastics pollution but how they interact with water and wastewater treatment processes had not been fully understood.

“Our results show that water and wastewater treatment processes break microplastics down into nanoplastics and this poses an emerging threat to aquatic ecosystems and human health.

“Our analysis suggests new strategies are needed to limit the number of nano and microplastics in water and wastewater to keep water quality at the required standards and reduce threats on our ecosystems.”

Dumée said about 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year and up to 13 million tons of that is released into rivers and oceans, which contributes to a predicted cumulative amount of 250 million tons of plastic by 2025.

“Since plastic materials are hardly degradable through weathering and ageing, they accumulate in the aquatic environment for years to decades, and constitute a major concern regarding plastic pollution.

“The small size and high specific surface area of nano and microplastics makes them easy to ingest by living organisms where they can reach toxic levels. Their small size also makes it easy for them to travel along water and wastewater treatment processes.”

Dumée explained that relatively inadequate analytical techniques made it difficult to detect microplastics’ presence in treatment systems and advanced characterization systems are currently trialled at Deakin.

The research team is also evaluating the impact of nano and microplastics on the performance of commercial membranes to specifically design materials relevant for fine matter removal.

“We can develop new techniques to lessen the impact of nano and microplastics across water and wastewater treatment systems but a key challenge is detecting their presence in the first place.”

A Canadian study at the University of Victoria, released in June, suggested that microplastics will continue to be found in the majority, if not all, of items intended for human consumption.

University of Victoria marine biology PhD candidate, Kieran Cox, said human reliance on plastic packaging and food processing methods for major food groups such as meats, fruits and veggies is a growing problem that needs rethinking.

“We need to reassess our reliance on synthetic materials and alter how we manage them to change our relationship with plastics.”

Cox and his colleagues reviewed 26 previous studies and analysed the amount of microplastics in fish, shellfish, sugars, salts, alcohol, water and air, which accounted for 15 per cent of Americans’ caloric intake.

By looking at the amounts of these foods people ate, based on their age, sex and dietary recommendations, the team was able to estimate that a person’s average microplastic consumption is between 70,000 and 121,000 particles per year, with rates rising up to 100,000 for those who drank only bottled water.

Many countries, including Canada, are banning single-use plastics.

In mid-2019 Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, announced a ban on single-use plastics such as grocery bags, straws and stir sticks, and disposable cutlery and plates – which could come into effect as early as 2021.

Australia has implemented targets to transition from single-use plastic packaging to compostable, recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025.