The World Health Organization (WHO) has released a report on microplastics in drinking water, including an early assessment of potential risks to human health.

The report says we’re all drinking microplastics, and the direct effects on the body of consuming them are not yet known. Smaller microplastic particles could potentially be absorbed into our organs, the report warns.

It also suggests microplastics have the potential to both carry disease-causing bacteria and help bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. It recommends drinking-water suppliers and regulators prioritise removing disease-causing bacteria and harmful chemicals from the water supply, as that would also remove microplastics from drinking water. Ultimately, the best solution is to stop polluting the world with plastics, the report says.

“We urgently need to know more about the health impact of microplastics because they are everywhere – including in our drinking-water,” says Dr Maria Neira, Director, Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health, at WHO. “Based on the limited information we have, microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels. But we need to find out more. We also need to stop the rise in plastic pollution worldwide.”

Associate Professor Duncan McGillivray, School of Chemical Sciences, University of Auckland says it is very timely for the WHO to release this report.

“The main message from the report is not to panic about microplastics – any potential health risk appears to be much less than other potential contaminants in drinking water such as bacteria and pollutant chemicals, and treatment systems that reduce those contaminants can do a good job of dealing with microplastics as well.

“But we should not relax either – there are too many unknowns about how microplastics impact health, and the WHO report strongly encourages further research in the area. Even the definition of microplastics is not clearly agreed on, and the biological effect of a microplastic depends on complex combinations of factors including what it’s made of, how big it is, and whatever it may have picked up as a surface coating. And overall, we just need to reduce the amount of plastic waste we are creating.”

Dr Olga Pantos, ESR Senior Scientist and co-leader on a project called AIM² (Aotearoa Impacts and Mitigation of Microplastics) agrees.

“We need to reduce the amount of plastics we use. The less that ends up in the environment, the less there is to deal with, and the less there is to cause harm.”

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