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World's tap water found contaminated with plastic fibres

New Delhi : In the first public scientific study of its kind, plastic contamination has been found in the tap water of cities around the world, including in New Delhi.

Microscopic plastic fibres are pouring out of household faucets from New York to Delhi, with 159 drinking water samples collected from cities and towns on five continents, showing that people across the world are consuming plastic with every glass of water.

Working with researchers at the State University of New York and the University of Minnesota, Orb Media, a non-profit digital newsroom in Washington, DC, found 83 per cent of the samples of tap water from 14 countries, were contaminated with plastic fibres.

After the United States and Lebanon, India had the third-highest contamination rate at 82.4 per cent. While the US had the highest contamination rate at 94 per cent, Lebanon was a close second with 93 per cent. The survey found that European nations, including the UK, Germany and France, had the lowest contamination rate of 72 per cent.

For the study 'Invisibles: The Plastic Inside Us', drinking water samples from 14 countries - Cuba, Ecuador, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Lebanon, Slovakia, Switzerland, Uganda, UK and the US were analysed. It found an overwhelming prevalence of microplastics - extremely small pieces (less than 5 mm) of plastic debris resulting from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste — in tap water.

Following recent studies that showed the shocking extent of plastics in the world’s oceans and lakes, Orb Media followed with a new question: If microscopic plastic is in oceans, lakes, and rivers, is it in drinking water as well?

Microplastics — tiny plastic fibres and fragments — aren’t just choking the ocean; they have infested the world’s drinking water, it found.

Microplastics have been shown to absorb toxic chemicals linked to cancer and other illnesses, and then release them when consumed by fish and mammals.

Scientists say these microscopic fibres might originate in the everyday abrasion of clothes, upholstery, and carpets. They could reach your household tap by contaminating local water sources, or treatment and distribution systems. But no one knows, and no specific procedures yet exist for filtering or containing them.

If plastic fibres are in your water, experts say they’re surely in your food as well — baby formula, pasta, soups, and sauces, whether from the kitchen or the grocery. Plastic fibres may leaven your pizza crust, and a forthcoming study says it’s likely in the craft beer you’ll drink to chase the pepperoni down, said Orb.

"Our exclusive research found 83 per cent of the tap water samples from 14 countries are contaminated with microscopic plastic fibres," said Orb Media founder and CEO Molly Bingham.

"Scientists say they don't really know how these microplastics reach our taps or what the health risks might be. But microplastics have been shown to absorb toxic chemicals from the marine environment, and then release them when consumed by fish and mammals. I am concerned by the implications of our research. At the very least, I hope that our work triggers large scale, global research on plastic contamination and the ramifications for human health - particularly that of children", she added.

The world cranks out more than 300 million tonne of plastic each year. More than 40 per cent is used once, sometimes for less than a minute, and discarded. But plastic persists in the environment for centuries. Cities are only beginning to reckon with this plastic microfiber pollution.

Slowing the wastewater treatment process would allow for the capture of more plastic fibres, Kartik Chandran, an environmental engineer at Columbia University, said. It could also increase costs.

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