A new research found that plastic fibers have infiltrated the drinking water of cities and towns all over the world
Tap water is considered to be the safest in the statistics about drinking water coverage that our government provides us. My experience of working on water and sanitation issues for the past two and half decades has however given me enough reasons to disbelieve these statistics. I am not sure of the quality of the water even when they claim a particular source to be ‘treated’. Some of the recent surveys and studies confirm my apprehensions.
We encounter with many forms of contamination of our tap water. An exclusive research by Orb Media, which is just out, finds out that plastic has contaminated tap water samples from around the world. This study, as reported in the same media, warns, “Microscopic plastic fibers are pouring out of faucets from New York to New Delhi for consumption by people, pets, and livestock.” This was previously unknown!
Samples drawn from across the world show how tap water quality – in so far as the Microscopic plastic contamination is concerned – in the US was no different than that found in Uganda. Shockingly the study also found plastic fibers in bottled waters from leading US brands and in homes that use reverse-osmosis (RO) filters. Orb media says, “a person who drinks two liters of water a day, or beverages like coffee, tea, and soda, might ingest eight plastic fibers – more than 2,900 each year”. Isn’t that alarming?
83 per cent water taps contaminated with synthetic fibers
The study took 159 drinking water samples from across the world. Almost 83 percent of this tested positive for synthetic fibers. So far we believed, plastic was coming back to us through food. Now, water too is becoming carrier. While research has been strong on health impacts of plastics in animals, it is recommended that more studies are needed for their ill impacts on human health. However, scientists suspect plastic would have similar impacts on humans as they have on animals. As our seas get alarmingly contaminated by plastic waste, seafood is already showing high level of pollution due to these.
Researches have pointed out several health impacts of plastic mostly during exposure during the manufacturing process as well as migration of chemical contamination from the products to the users. The Ecology Center says that many chemical additives that give plastic products desirable performance properties also have negative environmental and human health effects. These effects include: Direct toxicity, as in the cases of lead, cadmium, and mercury; Carcinogens, as in the case of diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP); and Endocrine disruption, which can lead to cancers, birth defects, immune system suppression and developmental problems in children.
But governments haven’t examined what plastic in drinking water, food, and the air might mean for human wellness, says the study in reference. Food and water remain the principal sources of plastic contamination entering into human body. Some scientists are of the opinion that plastic pollution is as huge a challenge as climate change. I would say, both of them fuel each other. Just take the example of our oceans. It is estimated that the oceans are now dumped with 5.25 trillion pieces of plastics, and that’s growing by the day. It not only pollutes the oceans and kills the habitats of the marine biodiversity, but also shrinks the oceans’ capacity to function as a carbon sink. Plastic pollutants also contribute to warming of the oceans that then lead to more devastations.
India, not prepared
Coming back to the issue of tap water contamination, the study raises an alarm bell about how deadly plastic in food and water could become. Referring to an article in the journal Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, the Orb media informs: endocrine-disruptors cost the U.S. $340 billion, 2.33 percent of gross domestic product, in 2010 over factors including the intellectual disabilities of 43,000 children exposed to these chemicals; 33,000 cases of juvenile obesity; and 3,600 incidents of testicular cancer. They cost the European Union $217 billion, or 1.28 percent of GDP. Then it asks a valid question: How great is the danger if, for example, plastic fibers the Ganges River absorb endocrine disruptors before they infiltrate New Delhi’s drinking water? Neither Delhi, nor the entire India has yet thought about this, I am sure.
On 16 December 2013, Bharatsinh Solangi, India’s Minister of State (Independent Charge) in the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, had said to the Rajya Sabha that only 30.80 per cent of the country’s rural households get tap water. The figure is 70.60 per cent for urban areas. That statistics was from the 2011 Census. He then mentioned about a Strategic Plan his ministry has prepared to ensure that by 2017 at least 50 per cent of rural households are provided with piped water supply; at least 35% of rural households have piped water supply with a household connection; less than 20% use public taps and less than 45% use hand pumps or other safe and adequate private water sources. The ministry has also strategized to make all these services meet set standards in terms of quality and number of hours of supply every day. Then there are higher targets set for 2022.
We are nearing towards completion of 2017 and water supply in India is impacted by several quality issues. The Census figures point out that while only 18 per cent rural households used ‘treated’ tap water sources, it was 62 per cent in case of urban population. A large chunk of people in rural areas relied on shallow groundwater sources such as wells, tube wells, etc. This was 20 per cent for urban areas. Most of the treatment of drinking water sources in India do not treat deadly chemicals. That’s the reason we are unaware of the health risks our bodies are exposed to by drinking from even the drinking water sources categorised as ‘treated.’ Then, the groundwater contamination is a major problem in India that exuberates in areas affected by extreme climate events such as droughts and floods. Urban surface water sources are highly contaminated with plastic and other waste materials, as can be observed in bare eyes.
Enormous health risks
Taking diarrhoea as an example, that’s caused by contaminated drinking water, would help understand the state of our drinking water sources in the country. It’s common across the nation and contributes to 13 per cent of the total death of children under five each year. Three hundred thousand children in this age group die in India every year. Diarrhoea is the third ‘most common cause’.
As the nation struggles with so many existing challenges with regard to its drinking water sources and supply systems, getting updated to high value research is a real tough challenge. Even rich countries have not yet been able to understand the real threat of plastic fibers in the tap water. The study no doubt is the first exclusive one, as claimed, but not comprehensive enough to understand all the dangers associated. It needs to be supported with extensive research all across the globe.
Plastic is already engulfing the planet, further complacency will end us all in a Plastic Planet. India needs to step up its capacity to both understand the contaminants – both earthed and unearthed – and upgrade infrastructure to stop plastic fibers and other deadly chemicals from entering into our drinking water and food.
(Ranjan Panda, popularly known as Water Man of Odisha & Climate Crusader, was awarded with first “Green Hero” in Dec 2010 by NDTV, received it from the President of India.Recently he was also profiled as “Odisha’s Conservation Master” by Hindustan Times. Very recently, recognized as ‘Mahanadi River Waterkeeper’ by the New York based global ‘Waterkeeper Alliance’.)