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Water Today Title June 23, 2021

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Update 2019/7/31

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Pure Element


By Suzanne Forcese

Since the 1950’s when plastic was heralded a miracle material of the postwar era, humans have created more than 7 billion tonnes of it and only 9% has ever been recycled. The rest has been incinerated, landfilled or has broken into fragments that end up in our soil, air, and water. The smallest pieces, less than 5 mm are called microplastics and they have made their way into our food chain, our drinking water and our bodies.

    “The mismanagement of waste is coming back to haunt us.”

    Dr. Chelsea Rochman

Water Today had the privilege of speaking to two world leading scientific investigators at the University of Toronto who are standing at the frontier of microplastic research in our drinking water.

Dr. Chelsea Rochman, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is world renowned for consulting on the EU’s Oceans Plastic Charter. “Every piece of plastic contains a complex chemical cocktail,” Dr. Rochman stated. In the environment, microplastics can absorb numerous chemical contaminants including heavy metals and persistant pollutants including hydrocarbons. That plastic has found its way into a disturbing range of ecosystems. From the tiny fibres that come off the synthetic fabrics of our clothing to bits of car tire that wear off on the road and make their way through storm drains into the waterways, the mismanagement of waste is coming back to haunt us. It is estimated that 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans every year.”

Dr. Rochman’s interest in the microplastic pollution of lakes, rivers and oceans and the subsequent effect on ecosystems including the fish we eat has also impacted policy change including a multi-country ban on microbeads used in cosmetics.

The research journey took a surprising turn for Dr. Rochman in 2017 when U of T colleague, Dr. Robert Andrews, P.Eng, in the Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering approached her with the possibility of microplastics in our drinking water. Professor Andrews is the NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Source Water Quality Monitoring and Advanced/Emerging Technologies for Drinking Water Treatment. Dr. Andrews told WT that following on the heels of media-published results obtained by a group called Orb Media he had been approached by “a couple of the major water providers in Southern Ontario that I work with at the Institute of Water Innovation asking me what we were doing on this topic.” The topic was – microplastics in our tap water based on samples of tap water taken from around the world. “Nothing was being done in this area, so I thought it was a good area to pursue.”

Dr. Rochman was not convinced. Until they filtered some regular tap water in the lab and found microplastics. And so the quest began. To Dr. Andrews' knowledge, this is unexplored territory. “There have been a couple of studies in Europe on groundwater but nothing looking at surface water.”

“Is there a risk to human health? To know that, we have to look at a route that everyone is exposed to. Our drinking water.”

Dr. Robert Andrews

Dr. Andrews’ expertise in working with drinking water providers on treatment and technology involves dealing with drinking water contaminants, such as organic compounds to determine a target threshold below which risk to human health is considered minimal and then applying the appropriate treatment technologies to maintain safe drinking water. But since no one has ever studied microplastics in drinking water before there has been no way to analyze data.

“Professor Rochman and I have been working diligently to come up with a standard method of analysis that other researchers can use,” Dr. Andrews added. “Next we will sample water treatment plants in the Great Lakes and determine what microplastic removal methods are in place and how much microplastic is still in distribution. We know how to do better.”
Here’s what we know so far according to Dr. Rochman:

  • When we talk about plastic pollution it’s not just about the macroplastic in the fishing nets and the bottles and bags, but it is also about the microplastics (less than 5 mm in size) found in the sea, on beaches, in rivers, in soils, in the air
  • Sources include leakage from landfills, plasticulture littering, and sea sludge
  • 4.8-12.7 million metric tonnes per year is reaching the oceans through mismanaged plastic waste leaked into the environment
  • 31.9 million metric tonnes of microplastic is finding its way into streams, rivers, lakes, soils, air and is starting to find its way into our food and drinking water

“How did we get here, from a material that should be celebrated to a material that is villainized?” Dr. Rochman asks. In the 1950’s, plastic convenience items really started to increase. At this time, we produced ½ million tonnes per year. Today that’s more than 300 million tonnes per year and half of that is plastic convenience items making single use material out of a precious resource oil. What are we doing with it at the end of life?

“As we do more research, we are finding it in our seafood and sea salt. Microplastics are in our drinking water. Bottled Water averages range from 100-6500 particles/litre. Tap water averages 0-600 particles/litre. What are the impacts to us physically and chemically? We know in animals microplastics can translocate in the body crossing the blood barrier into organs causing inflammation.”

Dr. Andrews says he is not an alarmist. There is a specific orderly protocol to be followed to determine if there is a risk to human health from exposure to microplastics. By looking at a route that everyone is exposed to - drinking water -more can be determined. Dr. Andrews also says much inter-disciplinary collaboration will be required to establish future guidelines. For now, the study is a very laborious, time-consuming, intensive and expensive process.


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