Industry responds to bottled water microplastics study

‘Consumers can remain confident that bottled water products are safe’

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

The bottled water industry has cautioned against drawing conclusions from a non-peer reviewed study that found microplastic particles in bottled water: sayings the findings are ‘weak’ and ‘alarmist’.

The study from Orb Media claimed that around 93% of bottled water tested show ‘some sign of microplastic contamination’; but the industry points out that microplastic particles are found across the environment in soil, air and water.

The study found roughly twice as many plastic particles (>100um) in bottled water as tap water; and more particles in plastic bottles than in glass bottles. The authors of the study say that the data suggests contamination is ‘at least partially coming from the packaging and/or the bottling process’.

However, the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) says the findings ‘do nothing more than unnecessarily scare consumers’, given that the study is not peer reviewed and there is no scientific consensus on testing methodology or the potential health impact of microplastic particles.

The study

The study from Orb Media, a non-profit journalism organization, examined 259 bottles from nine countries and 11 brands: including Aquafina (PepsiCo), Dasani (Coca-Cola), evian (Danone), Nestlé Pure Life and San Pellegrino (Nestlé).

Scientists from the State University of New York in Fredonia used a Nile Red stain, a fluorescent dye that attaches itself to polymeric material, to assess samples.

It examined plastic particles >100 um (approximately the diameter of a human hair); and also detected particles <100um which ‘were not spectroscopically confirmed to be microplastics...[but] rationally expected to be plastic or of some other anthropogenic origin.’

“The densities of microplastic contamination are quite variable ranging from 17 bottles with no contamination to one bottle that showed an excess of 10,000 microplastic particles per liter,” ​says the study.

The study also compared one lot of glass with one lot of plastic from the same source.

“While both of these packaged waters have the same water source, there was considerably less microplastic contamination within the water bottled in glass as compared to that packaged in plastic. This indicates that some of the microplastic contamination is likely coming from the water source, but a larger contribution might be originating from the packaging itself”.

IBWA challenges ‘probably plastic’ claim

The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), British Soft Drink Association (BSDA), PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Danone have responded to the study, all standing by the safety of bottled water and emphasizing high quality standards and adherence with regulations.   

Impact on health?

With regard to what impact plastic particles have on health, ‘the short answer is that scientists don’t really know yet’, says Orb Media in its investigation.

While some scientists suggest microplastics pass through the gut without leaving an impression, others suggest that particles could be taken up by intestinal tissue.

Orb Media concludes that the knowledge gap is in itself reason for concern; particularly given the level of exposure to plastics on a day-to-day basis.

The WHO has announced it will review the potential risks of plastic in drinking water, saying that ‘although there was not yet any evidence on impacts on human health, it was aware it was an emerging area of concern’.

All warn against drawing conclusions from a study that has not been peer reviewed and has a number of limitations.

The IBWA goes as far as to say that Orb Media ‘has preconceived positions on issues'.

“The study’s “probably plastic” findings are weak at best and reporting it as news is alarmist and not responsible journalism,” ​it says.

The bottled water industry adds that thousands of other food products also use plastic containers and that microplastic particles are found in all aspects of the environment (such as soil, air and water), adding there is no evidence or scientific consensus on the potential impacts of microplastics on human health.

However, manufacturers say they will support research into microplastics, which is still an emerging field. 

Here is what the industry has to say:

Danone (evian):​ “Microplastic is an emerging issue that we, at Danone Waters but also with the rest of the bottled water industry and the scientific community, are following closely.

“To date, there is no applicable regulatory framework or scientific consensus with respect to the adequate testing methodology or potential impacts of microplastic particles which could be found in any bottling environment.

“Concerning Orb Media study: Danone Waters is not in a position to comment as some aspects of the testing methodology used remain unclear and there are no details regarding the statistical significance versus the blank value.

“In general, there is still limited data on the topic and conclusions differ dramatically from one study to another. For example, a recent scientific study published in the peer-reviewed journal Water Research in February 2018 concluded that no statistically-relevant amount of microplastic can be found in water in single-use plastic bottles.

“Preserving the purity of our spring and natural mineral waters requires high-quality packaging, and we conduct extensive qualification testing before use. All our packaging is food grade and does not migrate into the water. Our bottling process respects the highest hygiene, quality and food safety standards."

Coca-Cola:​ “The quality of our products and safety of our consumers are of paramount importance to us and we take them extremely seriously.

“We have some of the most stringent quality standards in the industry, and the water we use in our drinks is subject to multi-step filtration processes prior to production. 

"As Orb Media’s own reporting has shown, microscopic plastic fibers appear to be ubiquitous, and therefore may be found at minute levels even in highly treated products. We stand by the safety of our products, and welcome continued study of plastics in our environment.”

Nestlé:​ “To date, we have not found micro-plastic compounds beyond a trace level in our products and know that false-positives related to compounds naturally present in the water can be an issue.

"Nestlé Waters is at the forefront of further research on microplastics and, although no regulatory limits exist, and recent scientific investigations show that they can be present in the air, it is something we continue to monitor and research using state-of-the-art techniques.

"We are open to discuss and collaborate with Orb Media and to work with the wider scientific community to develop a better understanding around test methods and the science behind micro-plastics."

Aquafina (PepsiCo):​ "Aquafina maintains rigorous quality control measures, sanitary manufacturing practices, filtration and other food safety mechanisms which yield a reliably safe product for enjoyment anywhere in the world.

“The science on microplastics and microfibers is an emerging field, in its infancy, which requires further scientific analysis, peer-reviewed research and greater collaboration across many stakeholders. Microplastic particles may be created from innumerable sources and are found across our environment – including the soil, air and water. We are interested in being part of any serious scientific research into micro-plastics. Aquafina continues to maintain the highest safety and quality standards for our products.”

IBWA:​ “The non-peer reviewed study released by Orb Media is not based on sound science, and there is no scientific consensus on testing methodology or the potential health impacts of microplastic particles. Therefore, this study’s findings do nothing more than unnecessarily scare consumers.  

 “Scientific experts in the field told the BBC News, “The particles below 100 microns had not been identified as plastic​” [emphasis added] and that “since the alternatives would not be expected in bottled water, they could be described as probably plastic​" [emphasis added]. Those not-identified substances made up the vast majority of particles counted. The study even acknowledged that the make-up of those particles was not confirmed but could "rationally expected to be plastic.”

“The study’s “probably plastic” findings are weak at best and reporting it as news is alarmist and not responsible journalism.” (full statement here​)

BSDA:​ “It is important to note that thousands of other food products also use plastic containers and that microplastic particles are found in all aspects of our environment – soil, air and water.

“There is no evidence or scientific consensus worldwide about the potential impacts of microplastic particles on human health. The study by Orb Media has not been through a scientific peer review and has a number of limitations.

“Our members have some of the most stringent quality standards in the industry, with all bottled water products produced using a multi-barrier approach. We stand by the safety of our bottled water and remain committed to providing consumers with the highest quality products.”

* You can read about Orb Media’s investigation, including a link to the study, here.

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