Environmentalists have long raised a red flag over microplastics. But now, concerns over the potential negative impact of these small fragments of plastic – less than five millimetres in length – to human health is pushing plastic pollution up the agenda.
In France, Agir pour l’Environment (Acting for the Environment) believes there is cause for alarm: the NGO has identified microplastic contamination in 78% of the best-selling bottled water brands in France.
Microplastics in blood, meat, dairy and water
Scientists have identified the presence of microplastics in human blood, in meat and dairy products, and even close to the summit of Mount Everest.
These tiny pieces of plastic are of concern because of the widespread presence in the oceans and the potential physical and toxicological risks they pose to organisms, according to the University of Plymouth, UK – the university responsible for analysing the microplastic samples from the world’s tallest peak.
“Microplastics can be ingested by a wide range of animals and have been found in organisms ranging from size from small invertebrates to large mammals.”
According to laboratory studies, there is potential for microplastic contamination to lead to ‘harmful’ effects within organisms, as well as ‘widespread’ and ‘potentially irreversible’ effects in the natural environment.
One way that humans may be ingesting microplastics is via plastic bottled water.
Back in 2018, scientists at the State University of New York conducted analyses of plastic bottled water to test for microplastic contamination. According to their findings, roughly twice as many plastic particles were identified within bottled water, compared to tap water.
Ninety-three percent of the water tested was found to contain microplastics, which an average of 10.4 microparticles identified per litre.
In Europe, environmental NGO Agir pour l’Environment (Acting for the Environment), has sought to determine whether bottled water sold in France also contains microplastics.
Plastics identified in ‘best-selling’ brands
The non-profit commissioned Labocéa, a laboratory with microplastic analysis expertise, to test the best-selling brands in France’s bottled water market. Virgin plastic bottles as well as recycled plastic were included in the mix.
Brands selected include Badoit, Carrefour (Source Montclar), Cristaline, Evian (100% recycled in 500ml and 1L bottle formats), Perrier (blue bottle), Vittel (330ml kids and 1L formats) and Volvic.
Badoit, Evian and Volvic are owned by Danone, Perrier and Vittel by Nestlé, and Cristaline by Roxane.
Labocéa leveraged Fourier Transform Infrared (FTI) technology to identify the presence of polymer plastics in the water.
The number of microplastics detected was ‘variable’, from anywhere between 1 and 121 plastic microparticles per litre. Contamination was identified in 78% of bottled waters analysed.
The main plastics identified were polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PE), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The presence of polyurethane (PU) was also noted.
“Given their nature, it seems that most of these microplastics come from the bottle, the cork and the bottling process,” suggested the NGO. “Subjected to strong heat and light, these water bottles could release even greater quantities of microplastics.”
Industry responds: ‘The study is very limited in nature’
FoodNavigator reached out to Nestlé and Danone for comment. Both reverted to trade association Natural Mineral Waters Europe (NMWE), which responded of behalf of the sector.
Agir pour l’Environment’s study, according to NMWE, is ‘very limited’ in nature. The analysis has not been duplicated in order to corroborate the findings, added Patricia Fosselard, Secretary General, NMWE. “The study itself states that it has ‘no scientific purpose’.”
Not enough is yet known about the occurrence of microplastics in drinking water, Fosselard continued. The World Health Organization (WHO) agrees. In the WHO’s Microplastics in drinking water report of 2019, it concluded that there was insufficient information to draw a firm conclusion on the toxicity of microplastics, and that no reliable information suggests it is a concern.
What is known, suggests the trade association, is that microplastics are ‘everywhere’ around us, even in the air we breathe. Recent findings suggest that more than half of all microplastics in the environment are caused by car tyres and building construction, noted the Secretary General.
NMWE also highlighted the ‘important role’ natural mineral and spring water play in European health. Its members’ products undergo ‘regular’ testing and monitoring at the source and through the entire bottling process, with more than one million quality analyses conducted annually by producers’ quality assurance units and by accredited external laboratories in Europe.
A call for action
Agir pour l’Environment is not convinced current bottled water regulation is up to scratch.
The greatest number of microplastics identified in the study was present in Nestlé’s Vittel Kids product, it explained, with 40 particles found in the 330ml bottle – equating to 121 particles per litre.
“It is unacceptable to let bottled water manufacturers sell water polluted with microplastics, but presented as supposedly ‘pure’ – and in addition, 300 times more expensive than tap water!”
The NGO is calling on the state to act: Agir pour l’Environment wants to see plastic bottles banned by 2027.
“The [Government] must protect our health and the environment…by ensuring that the food chain is not polluted with microplastics. We must get out of disposable plastic as soon as possible, starting by banning plastic bottles.”